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.