Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Having spent most of my working life in an office I feel I’m well equipped to offer up some insight into the worlds and minds of the people who work there. Take me, for example: a diffident school leaver at 16, sporting only the very basic of academic qualifications, entering office life without effort in an elevator fuelled by just the teeniest touch of nepotism. My weekly wages brought me the latest fashions, the fanciest make-up (I was never a Boots No. 17 girl), and later would pay for giddy nights out with friends of both sexes. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that (despite my expensive taste in cosmetics), I was unremarkable; my needs, wants and desires were as typical as the Alison, Sharon, Debbie or Karen that sat opposite me, twirling their hair with soon-to-be-engaged fingers and giggling at the office manager’s new tie. In office life you may occasionally come across an Alex who treads the Cumbrian hills at weekend or a Nigel who has joined a camera club and is eager to show you his prints or even a Celia who claims to have a season ticket for The Octagon but it is rare, extremely rare, to rub shoulder pads with anyone quite like John.

He must have been in his mid-fifties and I in my mid-thirties when we were introduced – he, as the new Area Sales Manager for the South West, and I, as one of his Sales Administrators.  His accent was thick and bristly as well it might be as he came from the deepest, darkest, most secretive part of Herefordshire where, I later found out through his poetry, he would take his pet bull terrier for walks on the grassy heaths. Yes that’s right, John was (indeed, still is) a poet. Not only did he pen his thoughts through rhyme and metre and then regularly regale them to me over the office telephone system, in addition he would share his tales of army life, his days as a woodwork teacher, his craft of wood turning and his love for Rock and Roll. John had found himself an audience, not a collective one whose appreciation would result in roisterous applause, nor a fawning one who would gasp and coo at all he told but a quiet, singular, respectful one and one who has remained so right up to this very day. In exchange for my pliant ears, John would drive up to Bolton bearing gifts. These were not flowers, potted plants or chocolates. No, his gifts held not the remotest resemblance to any token of gratitude that a Sales Representative might hand over to his office staff. And indeed for that I shall always be thankful for it was John, with his penchant for outlandish treats, who first introduced me to pheasant. Before I unfurl my musings on phasianus colchicus let me go over just some of the booty brought in by John and why I was such a deserving cause.
The first couple of years of the new millennium was a tumultuous time for me as it was during that period I left my first husband and took refuge at my mother’s house. The pending divorce brought with it an uncertain future and any glimpse I caught of it had me slinking for cover. And so I became the student I never was and studied nightly behind my teenage bedroom door; books and words becoming an anodyne to keep the pain at bay. Mum would cosset me with brews of camomile tea and we would lament over the shocking state of the male species. A divorcee of twenty years or more and a veteran man-hater, Mum was adequately qualified in offering an illuminating contribution to such discourse. It could only ever have aroused in her a deep suspicion of motive, then, when she learned the source of the gigantic bag of apples I heaved over the back step one evening after work, huffing and puffing like a weary coal merchant with a thunderous sack of coal. It is a well known fact that anyone suffering from melancholia, or indeed any other form of sickness, might benefit from a trip to the countryside, but if you can’t get to the bucolic idyll of your choice then why not let it in through your own back door? John had brought me a taste of rural Herefordshire in the form of a massive amount of the most rosy-smudged, cheek-twanging apples I’d ever seen or tasted. They tumbled out of Mum’s tiny fruit bowl, littered the worktop in a cheerful haze of green and pink, some rolled into the sink merrily while others fell to the floor with a bruising thud. I sat in my favourite dining room chair and watched as Mum trailed after the recalcitrant apples. Just at that moment, the back door opened and my youngest brother, Tom, emerged, his eyes stumbling over the landslide of rose and green fruit before him as he hunted for the right words: “What ...why ...where...have they come from?” Mum was speedy with a sarcastic retort as she glared over at me, her failing divorcee-in-training, “Oh these are just a few apples that a man at work has given Wendy,” and more damningly, “if you ask me he’s obsessed with her.” “Well” cautioned Tom “if his depth of obsession equals the amount of apples he has a problem; has he seen a psychiatrist?”
After the apples and my protracted consumption of them, John regularly supplied me with yet more rustic fare. I gladly became the recipient of a deep burgundy-hued loin of venison, whose length and breadth was the size of a generously proportioned Christmas log and served a dinner party for six effortlessly.  Shortly after that I was given cubes of healthy pink rabbit meat which I subsequently braised in cider with chunks of carrot and celery. The pheasant arrived later in the year on a freezing night in December and, although plucked and ready for the oven, this bird offered me the fiercest culinary challenge. I followed John’s gruffly given instructions to, “Roast it like a chicken, Rum*” and remembered his suggestion of “Smearing it with butter to help keep the meat moist”. My hands, greasy with butter, shoved the messy bird into the oven’s pre-heated cavity and there it roasted for ... err..., as long as it would take a chicken, of course. After well over an hour I lifted out the sizzling roaster and stifled a burgeoning hysteria as I began to wonder how this shrivelled body might feed four hungry mouths. What were once, presumably, the bird’s juices had become sticky deposits as black as tar and it soon became obvious that no amount of de-glazing the tin with wine would ever produce a pouring of gravy. “Find me your sharpest knife, Mum” I ordered as I scrabbled in her cupboards for a packet of Bisto. I piled four plates with roast potatoes, braised red cabbage and honeyed parsnips, and then attempted to carve the pheasant. The knife could not find purchase anywhere, not just because of its blunted blade but due to the fact that underneath the bird’s crackled skin was a shaming lack of meat. What had happened to the tender gamy slices that John, just hours earlier, had promised would tantalize my guests’ taste buds this evening? I jabbed the carcase furiously with a fork and pulled at the parched remains which clung loyally to the bird’s ribcage. Both legs were tugged free and thrown as bony scraps onto my brother Tom and his wife Deborahs' plates. Mum and I had to make do with the residual withered flesh. The look on Tom’s face told me everything I needed to know: that pheasants are best left to roam the scrubby farmlands which embroider the West Pennine Moors where perhaps the cock’s coppery plumage and scarlet cheeks can be viewed respectfully through the lens of a scope.
At 9.05 the following Monday morning the office telephone rang and as expected John’s voice asked me how well the pheasant had gone down. I answered lightly: “Oh well, not too bad ... although I did find it hard to cut, perhaps I should invest in a sharper knife. How do you carve yours?” Was it my imagination or did John’s answering cackle transmute eerily into the briskly whirring ‘Kor, Kor’ of a mocking pheasant before it jolts from the grasses and staggers into hurried flight.

I would not give up on pheasant and resolved that one day it would be the plump and tasty table centrepiece that John had so boasted about. Although some years did pass before I purchased another bird. By then I was happily married to Martin, who was always eager to share new experiences in dining. I found Mike Robinson’s novel way of cooking pheasant while browsing the internet one afternoon and tried it out for our evening meal. It was a struggle to remove the bird’s backbone and I found that the rosemary, olive oil and lemon marinade was just a touch too summery for this most seasonal of meats. My next foray into pheasant gastronomy was last December when I took advantage of an amazing offer displayed at one of Bolton market’s meat stalls: three pheasants for £6.00. My family were coming round for dinner that evening and I decided I would try casseroling the birds. I found a suitable recipe here in Gordon Ramsay’s World Kitchen: pheasant Casserole with winter vegetables and calcannon.  I duly jointed the pheasants, browned them in batches and filled my casserole pot with a medley of cubed carrots, parsnips and celeriac before pouring in the required amount of honey and red wine. My kitchen was filled with a deep and satisfyingly rustic aroma as I allowed the dish to cook for Gordon’s prescribed time of one hour and a quarter. Although the flavours married well, I was still not totally satisfied with the pheasant’s unyielding flesh as I watched yet another bewildered brother pull bones as sharp as needles from his teeth. This time it was Mr. Ramsay who had let me down with his promise of succulence and moistness. Was the temperature too high? Should the birds be cooked slowly at a lower heat? There was something I was doing wrong and neither I nor any future pheasant of mine were going to be beaten; these beautiful birds deserved to be savoured.

Another cold December; snow has fallen and outside our front door is a scene from Narnia. Martin and I have been stocking up our freezer with fish and meat. Our favourite stall on Bolton Market has extended last year’s offer; this time it is four plump pheasants for £10.00. I could not resist and now feel satisfied that, if more snow should descend and we are not able to venture out on Christmas Eve for our festive turkey, we have a couple of pheasants to serve us heartily for Christmas dinner. Yes I am deeply satisfied and this is because, after many years, I have found the perfect way of cooking pheasant. Thanks to Nigel Slater.
*My married name was the snigger-inducing surname of Rummery, shortened merrily by John to the more pleasing nickname of Rum.
A pot-roast pheasant

This recipe has been adapted from Nigel Slater’s pot-roast pheasant with celeriac mash featured in that king of cookery tomes Tender: Volume 1. I say adapted only because I did not have the sage leaves, pancetta or dry Marsala stipulated in Nigel’s ingredients list. Instead of Marsala I used dry cider and in place of sage leaves, I added sprigs of thyme. Although Nigel announces that, “Pheasant and celery get on rather well,” and that, “Celeriac seems to be one of the most successful mashes to serve with the mildly gamy flesh of this bird,” I served it with plain old mashed potato and felt it to be a fitting partnership. Perhaps the creamy blandness of my mashed whites took nothing away from the, dare I say it, moist and succulent (and here I should add juicy) pheasant flesh that took its rest on my dinner plate.
Serves Two
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 oven-ready pheasant
2 garlic cloves (finely sliced)
A few sprigs of thyme
200ml dry cider

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed casserole over a medium heat. Add the pheasant and allow to colour evenly on all sides. I would recommend taking some care over this as you don’t want the skin to crisp up too much and yet it does need enough time to become a pleasing golden brown. Add the garlic and thyme and then pour in the dry cider allowing it to come to the boil. Cover your casserole with its lid and place in the oven for no longer than 40 minutes. You may turn the pheasant once during cooking.
Place the pheasant on a chopping board and cover with foil allowing the bird to rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.
Nigel recommends halving the bird with a heavy cook’s knife. I simply used a sharp carving knife and separated the legs from the body and carved the remaining flesh. Ceremoniously, I carried my platter of pheasant to our dining table and served it with buttered carrots, steamed broccoli, mashed potato and the spooned over hot juices from the pot. Finally I had mastered the art of pheasant-roasting.
It is clear to me now what had gone wrong with my previous birds. I had cooked them for too long in either too much liquid or, with more disastrous results, not enough. The 200ml of dry cider barely lapped at the bird’s thighs but was just enough to steam the tender flesh to perfection. And although Nigel does not request you rest the bird before carving, I felt that this procedure helped gain the succulence I was so desperate to achieve.  I will leave this blog posting by adding that the flesh of this particular pheasant must easily rival that of the most expensive and perfectly cooked free-range organic chicken. Meaty, rich and with a depth of flavour that makes you gasp with pleasure. Merry Christmas. 


Tuesday, 30 November 2010


“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” So wrote Shirley Conran in her 1970s bestseller Superwoman, a book brimming with advice for women on how to dodge domestic drudgery.  If Conran believed that snapping off a mushroom’s stalk, then laying it cup-side down on a baking sheet with a dab of butter and a sprinkling of bread crumbs was a scandalous waste of womanly time, then how would she deal with the notion that somewhere in the heart of a Lancashire kitchen there existed an overworked housewife painstakingly peeling a bagful of mushrooms in readiness for her husband’s supper? That housewife was my mother and her dexterous peeling formed part of the mushroom broth ritual. My father waited languorously, sequestered away from the kitchen in his comfy chair as haughty and distant as a Roman Emperor, while his tender slave-girl  daintily rid the mushrooms of their skins. I looked on, enthralled, as Mum would produce two neat piles: one of peeled mushrooms, creamy in their nakedness and soft to touch like newly shorn lambs; the other of silky peel, curling in tranquil layers as delicate as the palest, softest rose petals. Mum would then pull off the stalks and cut the mushrooms into small dice. I once asked if I could have the stalks: “Can you fry them for me and make me a mushroom butty?” The answer was a firm “no,” Dad would know if his mushroom broth contained only the cups. Not I, or any of my siblings, would ever deliberately risk provoking my father’s wrath and so I didn’t ask again.

In a frying pan she would then melt a thick slice of butter, and while it foamed would tip in the mound of mushrooms, there seemed such a feast but Mum always appeased my hungry eyes by assuring me that the mushrooms would shrivel, and that there would only ever be enough for Dad. With her thumb she would depress the silver cap from the milk bottle, welding it to one edge of the glass rim so she could pour a generous amount of creamy milk into the pan of mushrooms. Stood on a chair by the stove, I would stare into the pan; like magic, little beads of golden fat appeared on the surface as the milky broth rose to a simmer. Mum gazed into the pan too, but not with my wonderment, she was only anxious for the milk not to boil over. In a large bowl, she would then decant the pan’s contents, and I would blink away tiny droplets of mushroom soup as it sputtered its way into the dish. Complete with spoon, Mum would gently carry the steaming bowl up the hall and into the living room. I followed and waited at the door until I heard Dad say, “Ta, love” in a gruff but satisfied tone. I would then dash back into the kitchen and wait for Mum to clear up the waste. Did I say waste? Well that’s what it was. If Mum had inherited any of her previous generation’s wartime thrift instead of exploiting 1970s profligacy she would have sautéed that mushroom peel, spread it onto a slice of bread and satiated her little child’s desperate craving for mushrooms. Instead she swiped up the peel, screwed it into a ball with the brown paper bag and threw it into the bin. I sat patiently, nibbling my fingernails in anticipation of any dregs left in my father’s supper bowl. On occasion there would be a tiny fleck of mushroom to tease out and lick from my finger in the manner of a clever cat. Sometimes there would be a spoonful or two of buff-coloured milk, tepid and sweet, which I would drink from the bowl savouring it as any modern day child would a McDonald’s milkshake.
Last week, I resurrected my mother’s mushroom broth. I tired easily while peeling the mushrooms and just managed enough to conjure up the image of lambs and rose petals. And as I skated the slimy mushrooms around the pan of melted butter and just before I poured in the milk, my culinary instincts kicked in: mushrooms, milk, butter ... that’s only ever going to taste like, well ... mushrooms, milk and butter. All soups, surely, cry out for a background note of onion, a grinding of black pepper or at least some other less milky form of stock? But I chose to ignore this accumulated knowledge of soup-making as I stirred in the milk, gritting my teeth at a peevish need to rekindle my so-called mushroom-deprived childhood. There seemed to be an immense amount of mushrooms (was my mother lying when she said they shrivelled?) bobbing up and down in their liquid like shiny ornamental pebbles and sure enough - tiny buttery bubbles visited the surface obediently, assuring me that my memories, at least, showed some signs of validity. In an aging Virago paperback novel  I remember once reading the phrase: “Consummation can never fulfil the glory of desire,” and so too this soup, this magical edible potion of my childhood appeared in front of me, glistening with all the promise of a taste of paradise, and then swamping me with disappointment. I sat down, spooned the soup into my mouth and felt a crazy sadness. Sad for my mother who once asked me why I always needed to refer to cookbooks. Sad also for my father, punished with senility, as he waits patiently in the tiny room of a care home for yet another bowl of slop.

Looking back it seems easy for me to understand why a nature-loving six year old might be charmed by a mushroom. And not just for its sweet and nutty flavour. It smells of the forest floor after rainfall – dank and earthy. It rolls in your palm like a chubby dormouse and yet is as light as a fir cone. Upturn it and there you see a dusky underskirt of frills, packed tight like hundreds of tiny feathers. I can only sit now and wonder why, when Mum’s back was turned, I didn’t steal a mushroom from the bag and sneak it into my bedroom for hiding under the bed along with my shoebox of half dead butterflies and match-boxed caterpillars.

Mushroom Pâté
 My pâté of choice would either be smoked salmon or smoked mackerel but I felt I had to create this vegetarian starter when some friends came round for dinner during the summer. Not that they are vegetarian, I might add, it was just that I had a hunch that they would have some sort of aversion to smoked fish. I still don’t know what feelings they have for smoked fish but what I did find out that night was that they liked this pâté and even asked me for the recipe.

So, here it is:
1 Onion (chopped)
1 Garlic clove (crushed)
1 tbsp oil
300g Mushrooms (chopped)
Juice of one lemon
225g Full fat soft cheese (eg. Philadelphia)
Salt and ground black pepper
Chopped parsley to serve

Serves 4 – 6

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook gently until the onions become soft and almost translucent, this may take about 5 minutes.

Add the chopped mushrooms, lemon juice and seasoning and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or until the mushrooms have cooked through.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool before tipping into a food processor along with the soft cheese. On a particularly health-conscious afternoon, I tried making this dish with low fat soft cheese and was disappointed with the resulting mousse-like texture. Lesson now learned I would always, always (even if my waistline felt a little stouter than usual) use full fat cheese for pâté.

Blend the mixture until fairly smooth and spoon into a serving dish. Cover and keep refrigerated until needed.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley just before serving.

Yesterday I ate my pâté with plain old white bread toasted as this picture illustrates, it was good but not half as good as the bread I toasted today: Irish Wheaten Soda Bread made with buttermilk, thickly sliced and placed with care (it crumbles) on the grill pan. This bread makes the perfect toast precisely because it doesn’t toast perfectly, if you get what I mean. And this is because the buttermilk ensures the bread stays moist and crumbly, only crisping the crusty edges while it heats up under the grill. The added joy is, that while grilling, this wheaten bread lets out a sweet and comforting aroma like a wholemeal scone being freshly baked.  I sat by the window, spread my hot soda bread with its perfect accompaniment of thick, slushy pâté and watched the snow slide from the rooftops. Bliss. 

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Spice Harvest

Sunday began, as usual, with Martin wrestling with The Observer. Midmorning, to counteract any sign of the inevitable work-eve ennui, he lit incense and placed it on the hall dresser. Silver threads of peppery smoke coiled upwards and merged with the white glare of the sun as its rays pushed through the skylight. The perfume straining for recognition was patchouli, but it was the faint smell of wood smoke that stimulated a desire for spice. Not the red-heat of chilli, what I wanted was the smouldering earthiness of turmeric or the sweet muskiness of cinnamon, cloves or grated nutmeg. I’d already decided on trying out Nigella Lawson’s ‘Butternut, rocket and pine nut salad’ but it was what to serve with it that was causing me concern - what animal, vegetable or mineral could possibly do justice to the recipe while satisfying a need for spice? No matter, we both needed to get out and take advantage of the autumn sunshine and so mealtime quandaries would have to be addressed later in the day.

After the colourless miasma of the hallway where we’d pulled on boots and coats, the kaleidoscopic beauty of autumn startled like a smack in the face. To try and do it any justice with a few words and pictures is appearing (as I type) a brave but inadequate task. Also lonely, better to be out there experiencing it with a close companion. And yet we tend to walk in separate togetherness, Martin and I. Always closely connected by the odd, mutually admired, observation but by way of our absurd differences in height (he, six foot four; me, five foot one) there is always a physical space between us when we walk. Occasionally, I will trot forward and grasp hold of his hand to slow him down but usually I lag behind and experiment with the creative zone on my camera. Today, the vibrancy of autumn needed careful attention, and for that reason there seemed a lot to be said for having shorter legs.

There are many beech and birch trees that make up the Anglezarke woodland. In summer they would have offered a canopy to protect us from the sun and now, in autumn, they bring the house down with their dazzling show of colour. Some trees are not quite ready to relinquish their summer garb and remain remarkably green, the odd aged leaf shrinking itself from the limelight. Other trees form a mantle of copper and amber, while others drip leaves the colour of zesty lemons and limes. Not every tree's swan-song is so aesthetically pleasing, however. The most unfortunate being the sycamore whose tired leaves, already blotched by fungus, lowers their role in this season’s performance. But there was something about this spice-yellow leaf, scorched here and there and browned around the edges, which put me in mind of tikka masala. That’s it! Our evening meal revealed itself. Whoooaa, not so fast, tikka masala might be an option if I’d taken the chicken out of the freezer. But what about the river cobbler lurking in the fridge for tomorrow night’s ‘Italian Baked Fish’?

And so today’s answer to our mealtime quandary would become tomorrow’s conundrum: what to have with thick-Italian-sauce? 

A word or two here about the very versatile, very adaptable river cobbler: some internet sources say it spawned in Vietnam; some say it’s farmed in Surrey; some scaremongers bemoan of its propensity to poison you slowly from arsenic and others say it “tastes a bit like cod”. I say this: it is bloody marvellous! It will serve you best if you cosset it: dress it up, flatter it with just about any tang you can think of, from aromatic Thai, oil-rich and herby Mediterranean or spice-riddled Indian – any flavoursome topping will sing out lustily while announcing the arrival of the delicate and fresh pearl-white beauty within. The fact that (for reasons known only by aquatic science) it always arrives on our worktops conveniently skinless and boneless would perhaps shed some light on its predisposition for soaking up such far-flung flavours. And although I’m here acknowledging the fish’s affinity with almost any accompaniment, I think it is in this simple raw state that I choose it so readily at the fish counter. I’ve done the ‘whole’ fish thing: wrapping up a silver sea bass in a shroud of foil; mummifying sea trout in dampened newspaper à la Jamie Oliver before setting it on the glowing embers of its funeral pyre and yes I have concealed many a salmon's milky eye with a penny-sized slice of cucumber. But always, always - that all-seeing eye is ready to burden me with guilt, ready to stare accusingly as I hover above, knife at the ready while its body lies helpless on a burial mound of fern-green rocket. I suppose I’m a coward that way - I don’t want to be reminded that my dinner was once alive and darting amid seaweed or (more accurately) squirming for pellets in the muddy waters of a fish-farm. Even when filleted the bass, sea trout or salmon might still exhibit some remnant of former life, if not head and tail then there are always pin-bones to extract and the odd scale to scrape off. For these reasons, I love the river cobbler and its kind and obliging flesh. The two fillets I unwrapped today were particularly agreeable, tender and white with a flushing of pearl pink down their centre, ready and eager to be blanketed in a delicately spiced marinade.

Fish Tikka Masala

The recipe for this dish is one I adapted from Becky Johnson’s version of Chicken Tikka Masala featured in her book Simply the Best. This book was handed to me as a stocking-filler Christmas present from my mum a few years ago. It’s a slim little volume of classic but adaptable recipes and I turn to it occasionally when I find trawling through heftier volumes for food ideas a chore rather than a pleasure.

Fish needs careful timing as overcooking can cause the flesh to become dry or even mushy and so I was slightly concerned that replacing chicken with fish in this recipe might result in disaster. I realised that the marinade needed sufficient time in the oven to display the pleasing char marks reminiscent of tikka dishes and so to protect the delicate fish from the high heat and slightly longer cooking time I used a thick, oozy Greek yogurt for the marinade. I was pleased that I had as the yogurt’s thick texture acted as a fishy insulator resulting in a succulent flesh and creamy topping. Praise due, once again, for the river cobbler which kept its shape during the whole process, managing to absorb all the warm spices while offering up some essence of itself: sweet and moist like a barely cooked scallop and yet as chunkily satisfying as a meaty slice of cod.

Serves 4

For the marinade

150 ml (5 fl oz) thick natural yogurt
3 Garlic cloves, crushed
Thick thumb of fresh root ginger, grated
4 skinless, boneless fish fillets

For the spice mixture

2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
Cinnamon stick
1 scant tsp ground cloves
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 scant tsp ground mace
1 tsp salt

Begin by heating a non-stick frying pan over a high heat. Tip in all the ingredients for the spice mixture and dry fry until smoking and aromatic. Once cooled, grind in a spice mill or pestle and mortar. Mix 1 tbsp of the powder with the yogurt, grated ginger and crushed garlic. The rest of the powder can be kept in a screw-top jar ready for any future marinade.

Lay the fillets in a large bowl or dish and coat them evenly and thoroughly with the spiced marinade, cover and refrigerate. It is essential that you allow enough time for the marinade to perform the magic act of infusing the fish with its spicy flavour. For this reason I would allow at least two hours marinating time but preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 220°/gas mark 7 and spread the fish and its marinade on an oiled baking tray. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cooked through and charred here and there.

Serve with any rice or Indian inspired dish. Perfect with Nigella’s spicy ‘Butternut, rocket and pine nut salad’

Butternut, Rocket and Pine nut Salad.
Taken from Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home by Nigella Lawson.

Yes it had been a perfect day. A satisfying walk through autumnal woodland in golden sunlight and coming home to everything I needed to make our evening meal. I thought I might have had my fill of saturated colours and soft decaying odours until I sliced open a butternut squash. This fruit is the star of the autumn festival: more orange than any citrus fruit which bears that name, with the sweet smell of melon, and somewhere, from within its moistened core of seeds and fibres, there is the scent of wet leaves. In this recipe Nigella intensifies the colour and flavour of the squash’s flesh by adding earthy turmeric and sweeter than sweet sultanas. Unfortunately I went a little overboard and added into the mix the grated zest and juice of an orange and then wondered why my salad tasted a little like Christmas pudding. Interesting but not recommended before the month of December. Serving this dish alongside the Fish Tikka Masala was an inspired pairing and so I thank you, ailing sycamore.

Serves 4 (or 2 if you’re hungry after a long walk)

1 butternut squash, approx 1kg.
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
2 x tablespoons of olive oil
Plus 2 tablespoons for dressing
50g sultanas
60ml water, from a freshly boiled kettle
1 tsp sherry vinegar
100g rocket and other salad leaves
50g pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 200°/gas mark 6. Have you ever tried to peel a butternut squash? You need spade-sized hands and the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer and so (and I love you for this Nigella) don’t bother to peel, but halve and de-seed the squash. At this juncture, Nigella recommends a fiddly amount of measuring before cutting and slicing, I just say hack into cubes but I’m sure you’ll find your own method.
Put the squash pieces into a bowl with the salt, spices and 2 tablespoons of oil, mixing them well before tipping into a baking tray lined with foil. “Don’t clean the bowl yet” says Nigella.
Cook the squash for 30-40 minutes but check after 30 minutes by piercing with a fork; some squashes cook quicker than others. I found I needed the full 40 minutes for the skin to become soft and the flesh to become golden(er) and crisp.

Add the sultanas to the spice-smeared bowl and cover with the freshly boiled water; once cooled, whisk in the vinegar and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. I didn’t have sherry vinegar and so used white wine vinegar and it tasted as a good dressing should.

Put half the salad leaves over a large plate and arrange the butternut pieces on top. Sprinkle with the remaining salad leaves and the toasted pine nuts. Scrape the sultana-studded dressing out of the bowl and dribble over the salad; toss gently before serving.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home. Nigella Lawson.

Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the HomeI openly admit to harbouring a great dislike for pictureless cookbooks. Without illustration, a recipe is reduced to a list of sterile ingredients and a set of prosaic instructions. Of course, this might not be true; the book’s narrative might be witty and compellingly informative, offering inspiring kitchen ideas to any receptive reader. Alas, not for me, for like Alice I can’t see the “use of a [cook] book ... without pictures or conversations”.  And in the wonderland of cookbooks, if you dare to recommend one sans photography you might just as well hand me your shopping list. It is with some jubilance, then, I bring you Nigella Lawson’s  Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home; a belly-buster (place it on your kitchen scales and watch the arrow wobble towards the 2kg mark) of a book filled with Nigella’s scintillating conversations and stunning, mouth-watering photography accompanying every single recipe.

A goddess in a red apron, tarnished cooking-pot in hand, Nigella grins coquettishly from the front cover urging her readers to get stuck in to a book which promises (and delivers) instant gratification thanks to photographer Lis Parsons. As mentioned, the photography is striking and complements Nigella’s sensitivity towards the language of food where colour, texture and mood are considered vital ingredients for producing outstanding dishes. Nigella’s favourite colour has got to be red: from the red-riding-hood colour of her apron on the front cover and on to the garishly red cake-stand displaying ‘Devil’s food cake’ on page 253, Nigella’s desire for red, it seems, borders on the obsessive. Indeed, so prolific is red throughout the book that if you chance upon a picture that lacks this colour an eye to brain message is transmitted, advising you subliminally, that something is amiss. Having commented thus, the use of red is far from gratuitous. Take for example the image accompanying her recipe for ‘Slut’s spaghetti’ on page 189; what better way to enjoy this dish than cushioned demurely on a tart-red leatherette chair wrapped in scarlet satin.

Kitchen, for me is not just a book to be taken into said room and used to coach your culinary skills. It’s a book for bedtime and particularly one to savour in after reading your fill of contemporary fiction. Forget Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, when a desire for metropolitan melancholia beckons, turn to page 336 and admire how Nigella conveys the beauty and gloom of a Venetian skyline as she tucks into a plateful of polenta-constructed lasagne:

                        I ease myself into this comforting pile-up of rich meat sauce and sweet,
                                grainy, cheese-thickened polenta, dreaming of the mournful and inky
                                winter evening light over the lagoon.

As with her male counterpart, Nigel Slater (in name as in food-flair) she remains top on my list of food-writers. Both are able to combine easy-to-follow, inspiring recipes with highly entertaining yet stimulating narrative. For example, it’s not just the simplicity of her recipe for ‘Mussels in cider’ (page 60) but the sensual rendering of the molluscs’ “naked sweetness against the rasp of cider” which would make me want to cook and eat it. There are occasions, however, where I can become a little cross with Nigella and this became apparent as I was scribbling down notes after replicating her ‘Butternut, rocket and pine nut salad’ (page 94), (the results to be posted on my blog very soon). After various crossings out, I realised it was fruitless to even attempt a description that could do justice to the humble pine nut anything like Nigella had, as she regaled the seductive charm of ‘Pappardelle with butternut and blue cheese’, on page 333:

                                ...the waxy, scorched pine nuts give quiet crunch, a hint of nubbliness, to this
                                           meltingly gorgeous concoction.

Nubbliness, now why hadn’t I thought of that?

Although highly informative, Nigella’s Kitchen is never officious or condescending. While she recognises the “obscene practices of factory farming” (page 220) she also acknowledges that hers is a privileged position, one in which she is able to choose an organic or free-range chicken in favour of a factory farmed bird. In addition, Nigella certainly doesn’t think she’s above using hitherto much maligned shortcuts like ready-grated parmesan (albeit from Italy) or even opening a jar of pour-over-sauce for pasta.  It is this down-to-earth attitude in the kitchen that might appeal to many of us who, after a stressful day’s work, want nothing more complex than a poached egg atop a slice of buttered toast and a side of baked beans. Furthermore, there are signs here and there of an almost empathetic telepathy as she expresses how it feels to be a tired and hungry working-mother of teenage children where “going for too long without food can make [her] feel both suicidal and murderous”. I have felt this way, often.

Along with Nigella’s other books, Kitchen is accompanied by a BBC TV series. And yet for me, like the film version of a favourite novel, it does not seem to measure up to the pleasures of being lost in her book. On screen, there are too many obvious innuendos accompanied by too much head-tossing and boob-wobbling, guaranteeing that sooner or later she’ll become fodder for someone's Saturday night comedy show. And I’m sorry but however much I try and suspend my disbelief, I cannot tolerate the idea of her slipping downstairs at midnight, after munching her way through a multi-course dinner, and finishing off elephantine portions of chocolate cake. Voluptuous she may be but such gluttony must yield other, less desirable, repercussions. Okay, if not morbid obesity then at least a spare couple of chins. 


Monday, 18 October 2010

Fish and Chips

Friday night’s chippy tea.

I do not follow any religious creed and as a result I’m perhaps ignorant of why fish is traditionally eaten on fridays, but in our house, friday night’s tea is simply fish served with a portion of oven-baked chips. For colour and a touch of authenticity, perhaps, I will introduce a mound of mushy peas, but on the whole it will be a fish fillet (either sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked or dusted with seasoned flour and lightly fried) and its accompaniment of chunky-cut chips doused in Sarsons malt vinegar. On thinking about it carefully, the tradition is probably a throwback to the early 70s, when, as a small child, I would wait patiently for my Dad to smooth back his hair, don shirt and tie and inhale the giddy air of his friday night out with the blokes. It was only when Dad was away and my younger brother was snoring sweetly upstairs that Mum, my elder brother, Ed, and me could guzzle ourselves stupid on fish and chips bought from the local chippy.
There were two fish and chip shops in our locality, one higher up the lane whose interior boasted a large collection of sea memorabilia: captains’ hats hung drunkenly from hooks on the wall; hand blown glass floats glinting in red and green and swaddled in knotted jute netting swung from ceiling and doorway; fading prints of bushy-bearded seamen smoking pipes placed next to the shop’s price-list and no end of shells and starfish. Although this shop promised you a genuine taste of the sea’s bounty it could not, for me, compare with Yates’s chippy situated lower down the lane.  There was no room for frippery in this shop on account of it being crammed full of hungry customers waiting for their turn in the queue. The proprietor, Mr Yates (or Ken), obviously took fish-frying seriously as he always wore a gleaming white overall and underneath that, out of respect for his profession,  a neat black tie. Even more memorable was his mellifluous whistle which began as he emerged from the back of the shop. Commencing with simple pitch-steps, his tune would gather tempo, rising and merging with the pop and crackle of fat in a dizzying liquid vibrato.  Replete with avuncular kindness, he always had time in his busy schedule to reach over the counter and chuck you under the chin, or hand you a scoop of batter scraps, free of charge, to crunch on while you waited.
Once served, embracing our greasy parcels and bottles of pop, my brother and I would dart our way back through the queue and out into the early evening air. On more than one occasion we would bump into old Mrs Eastman who lived on the other side of the playing field in the row of houses opposite ours. To us children she was a gnarly bad-tempered woman, whose meanness seemed to overflow when sheltered behind her garden gate, for in a proprietorial rage she would spit out, “get on yer own side Gradwell,” if me or any of my siblings dared to tread over the field and play on what she deemed her side of the avenue.  However, there were occasions when Mrs E let go her fierce facade and her walk to Yates’s chippy, neutral territory perhaps, was usually one of them. Come to think of it, I can’t remember her walking anywhere else, for always –enamel pudding basin* in hand – slippered feet shuffling forward, she would nod acknowledgement and ask any passer-by the same question: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?” No matter that you were swathed in furs and fine jewels as if for a night at the opera (a rare occurrence round our way), or that you were disguised in wig and cape for Halloween, it was always the same refrain: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?”
With anticipated joy, once safely home, we would unwrap our fishy parcels and breathe in the scent of our steaming fish supper. The  acidic stench of vinegar, hitting the back of my nose, made me recoil only slightly before I tugged free a golden chip and yes, you’re reading this correctly, dunked it into my glass of fizzing pop before shoving it, drips and all into my hungry mouth. The combination, I remember, was divine. Throughout the week, we didn’t have access to fizzy drinks and made do with water, euphemistically named ‘corporation pop’. It was only on friday evenings that we could indulge ourselves on sticky effervescent limeade (my favourite), or the dark and mysterious dandelion and burdock. And only the first two or three chips were used as dunkers, the rest, along with the battered fish, were appreciated for their savoury goodness. But why would I soak a perfectly cooked chip in a sugary drink? Perhaps it was my precocious taste buds hurrying towards a later desire for the ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’, although I do feel my need for chips soaked in pop was an emotional one and created by a need to exploit the ecstasy of the moment - when pop is newly poured and chips are at their most enticing - to its fullest extent.  A diminished experience, perhaps, if enjoyed separately.
Fully satiated we were able to stretch out like pampered cats while Mum switched on the TV. Dad did not approve of children watching television and so the entertainment appeared as an illicit novelty, another indulgence in which we could freely delight in. A fitting follow-up to our banquet had to be It’s a Knockout hosted by the delightful Stuart Hall. The programme featured grown men, hampered by their giant rabbit costumes, slipping around on foamed platforms in an unbalanced frenzy. The teetering and tottering would likely cause anyone to snigger but it was Stuart Hall and his infectious, uncontrollable laughter that filled our evening with so much furious hilarity. My Dad barely smiled, let alone laughed and to witness such merriment from a grown man was as refreshing as it was cathartic. Much later, our bellies plump with mirth and supper, we would climb the stairs and join our little brother in a contented sleep.
*Chip shops would allow you to take your own container, usually for steak puddings and gravy.

A fish and Chip Supper for Two

There is another delicious version of fish and chips in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent book River Cottage Everyday. It was from his recipe that I got the idea of cooking the fish in the same tin as the potatoes. A simple but helpful way of saving you time in the kitchen.
2 fairly large floury potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward), peeled and cut into fat fingers
4 tablespoons of oil (I use basic olive oil)
2 fillets of a fish of your choice (haddock, Pollack, bream or any of the oilier fish such as trout)
2 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
Handful of flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of tartare sauce
Grated zest of a lemon
Sea salt
Ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°.
Place the chipped potatoes in a pan of salted water and bring to the boil allowing them to simmer for 5 minutes. Timing is quite crucial as you don’t want the potatoes to become too soft and break up in the hot oil; less of a chip and more of a roasted rösti!

Place the oil in a large, sturdy roasting tin (large enough to hold the chips and accompanying fish) and put in the oven until hazy with heat.

Drain the potatoes, return to the pan and give them a stern shake so they become furred and ruffled at the edges.

Topple the potatoes into the roasting tin, jiggle them about until they are all covered in the hot oil and place them back in the oven for an initial 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes and maybe give them another shake and baste.

Meanwhile, whizz up the bread and parsley in a food processor until you have a couple of handfuls of fine breadcrumbs. I use ‘basic’ range white bread from the supermarket for breadcrumbs, the more expensive white loaves being too soft, creating a moist, doughy texture to your fish-topping.

After 30 minutes check your chips, by this time there should be some crispness, If not place back in the oven for another  5 or 10 minutes.  Your chips need to show some signs of  a golden crust at the edges but look as if they can benefit from a further  10-12 minutes, only then do you add the fish.

Push your chips to one side of the roasting tin and nestle your fish fillets on the other side. Spread the fillets with the tartare sauce, one tablespoon per fillet. Sprinkle over the herby breadcrumbs, ensuring each fillet is covered nicely before adding the grated lemon zest, salt and pepper. The tartare sauce not only offers a satisfying tanginess but creates a creamy, sticky base for the breadcrumbs to adhere to.

Return to the oven for 10-12 minutes, enough time for the fish to cook through and the breadcrumbs to become brown and crisp.

Serve with lemon wedges, tomato sauce and a slice of buttered white bread.  

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Errr, two trout filleted please ...

After vowing to eat more seafood, along with scouring food magazines, websites and cookery books for new ways to serve sea bass, a necessary part of my healthy regime is a weekly expedition to Bolton’s fish market. Once in there, I remain faithful to the largest of the fish stalls and am rewarded with an exhibition that would make Damien Hirst’s artwork appear somewhat mediocre; for here resides the shark’s head, pinioned on its shore of ice, reminding its spectators of their supremacy in the natural world and what happens to all creatures who dare challenge human dominance. Nestled safely, next to the halibut, the shark’s flesh is cut into neat and unassuming steaklets, meekly accepting its future role: at best, chargrilled and served alongside a tangy tomato salad; at worse, the smell of ammonia destroying its affinity with capers and sun-dried tomatoes, fed - without garnish, to the cook’s Labrador.

Of course, there are other, less belligerent oceanic and river-dwelling creatures to tempt the explorer. The mackerel, for example, harmonically bedecked with blue-green bands upon its back competes for attention; its streamlined athletic body positively exudes omega 3 confirming its status as one of nature’s ‘super foods’. And if colour is to play a deciding factor when choosing fish, why not splash out on a little red number? What the diminutive red mullet lacks in size is more than made up for in glints of ruby and glimmers of gold.

Almost as diverse as the fish and seafood that deck this stall are their consumers; from seasoned pescatarians, through to recent converts (like me) and onto complete novices, like the shy young man I encountered just last week. With crumpled shopping-list in hand he is obviously there for ideas on how to impress his fiancée later on in the day with an elaborate supper of mussels steamed in white wine or perhaps baked sea bass with fennel. Nervously, he asks the fishmonger to take off his chosen specimen's head and remove the guts. Determined not to appear squeamish, he watches the fishmonger slit the underbelly of the bass and pull out its slippery mass of vital organs. Rinsed and wrapped, the young man jubilantly carries away his catch, heading towards the fruit and vegetable stalls, no doubt in search of fennel. Next in the queue is the Asian matriarch, oblivious to the notice which asks can customers refrain from touching the produce, this veteran cook is determined only to choose the healthiest, firmest, and bright-eyed of the bream she is currently prodding to take home to her family. Finally satisfied with a fish that remains resistant to finger-pressure and with eyes that would inspire a chart topper from Art Garfunkel, she hastens the fishmonger to wrap it; head, tail, fins, scales and all.

Each time I visit the fish market, I vow to try something different, be a little daring - perhaps experiment with flash-fried squid. Unfortunately, as soon as it’s my turn in the queue I turn my head away from the cephalopods’ alien dangling tentacles and point my finger predictably toward the much prettier rainbow trout. After all, who would want to eat something that once contained an ink sac?