Damsons and Foregiveness

Damsons and Foregiveness

A few days ago Summer was fondly kissing us goodbye. Today a powerful wind and the threat of rain are thrusting towards me like Autumn with an outstretched hand and I rush down the garden to pick the wild plums or damsons before they are lost. Here they are having a wash in my sink and when they were clean I rustled up some damson jam which is my favourite. There’s no easy way to stone damsons but they are worth it.

damsons 2

Here’s the lovely syrupy mess they become after a short while in a pan with two thirds their own weight in sugar. For me the stones never float to the top so I resort to ladling the jam from one pan to another via a shallow dish where I can scrutinise each spoonful and fish out the stones. With ordinary plums it helps to count the plums first and then you have a target for the number of stone. With damsons I usually have over 400 and invariably lose count at some point.

This ended up in seven lovely pots and in time would all disappear onto people’s toast but good damson jam is such a great treat IMO that I decided it should furnish an old fashioned jam tart for supper.

My mother was a Pastry Queen and I resolutely did not learn to make pastry for the first thirty five years of my life because I wanted to be different from her. In fact I was in a giant sulk or tantrum, truth be told, which I should probably have chucked in when I was about seven but I dug my heels in because I had been hurt and because my will power (or wilfulness as she called it) was second to none. Of course I achieved my purpose of hurting her but I see now I hurt myself much more. Since then there has been reconciliation and forgiveness although much of it only after she died. Death is never an obstacle to forgiveness luckily but if you have an opportunity, dive in and do it sooner.

Anyway … my mother used to make wonderful individual jam tarts, lemon curd tarts, treacle tarts, all in miniature so that they appeared out of the oven in all their colourful loveliness and I didn’t know which to eat first. (My tantrum extended to not making pastry but it didn’t stop me eating hers!)

So here is the recipe for Damson Jam Tart but I guess you could use any really delicious jam and needless to say the finished article is good with Ice-cream, cream, fromage frais or any other unsweetened dairy. damson tart

Sadly I am not a pastry queen but I can at last do an acceptable shortcrust. It is heavy on the fat which means it remains very soft and breaks easily when you pick it up to line the tin. But it also means you can just squidge it in in pieces with your fingers and it all sticks together well.

I get my best results with Stork margarine rather than butter but others disagree. So this tart was simply

115 g Stork soft margarine

165 g plain flour

a pinch of salt and enough cold water to bring everything together.

Roll out as far as possible and line a greased loose-bottomed tart tin approx. 15 inches or 40 cms in diameter. Heat the oven to 180 degrees and do actually wait until it is hot! Put a circle of baking parchment inside the raw pastry and up the sides and fill with baking beans (porcelain or just dried beans). Give it 15 minutes in the oven and then remove the paper and beans.

Fill about half way up with really good jam and return to the oven until the jam is bubbling – about 20 minutes or so.

Sorrel

So at last I get home to find that the pathetic little sorrel plant I shoved in before I went away in July, the one that looked as though it might not survive the weekend, has taken over the world. Or at least my herb garden.  I have a great nostalgia for sorrel. Some time before the Flood you used to see it on French menus but now, not so much. As a student  I used to feel very French buying small, expensive bunches of sorrel in M & S on Kensington High Street but I don’t think I have seen it on sale these many years. In my mind it has taken on a mythical status and its taste has been elevated in memory to something near divine. Have you tried it? It’s lemony and refreshing and delicious with fish. So it is a delightful surprise to come home to sorrel with ambitions to march on Moscow which has started by annexing all available space in the zinc manger that is my herb garden. It is a divided affair, the manger, otherwise both sides would have fallen to the sorrel. I’m secretly delighted with this occupying force although I do wonder what has happened to the horseradish that went in at the same time.

herb garden

So what am I going to do with it? Interestingly recipes for things containing sorrel are only in my oldest cookbooks. Nigel Slater’s volumes on his garden produce do not mention it and a cursory glance at Diana Henry also draws a blank. A quick scroll though google, however, confirms what I remember. Sorrel dissolves even better than spinach with butter over a little heat. It lacks that blood and gravel taste of iron that people who don’t like spinach don’t like. With seasoning and an egg yolk or some cream or stock it is a ready made sauce. No blender to wash up! I can see it is going to be my mystery ingredient for the Autumn entertaining that is on the horizon.

It will also be keeping some pretty grand company as I am proud to tell you I have in my freezer, direct from the French field it grew up in, a poulet de Bresse. Such a song and dance has been made over this chicken (not least by Alistair Little) that when we passed a sign on the French motorway advertising Bresse as the next exit I brought the full force of my charm to bear (and a little hysteria) to persuade the driver to turn off so that we could buy one. I don’t know how it is in your car but in ours it doesn’t matter which of us is driving the power goes straight to our heads. Coffee stops, loo breaks and even medical emergencies simply cut no ice with the one behind the wheel, especially when abroad. If you want to stop do not begin your sentence ‘Shall we …?’ or ‘We could …’ or ‘Oh, look …’  Deaf and head down, the driver’s instinct is to Keep Going at all costs. The inviting lay-by, service station or out-of-the-way country restaurant is merely a cloud of dust behind you before you finish. Rather, shout ‘STOP!’ in such a way that obedience is instinctive but not so that the driver has a heart attack.  (I suggest you practise before setting off.) To maintain the effectiveness of this technique I recommend limiting it to once every five hundred miles or so. Anyway when I tell you I came home holding aloft a poulet de Bresse as though I had won Wimbledon and did a victory lap of the kitchen, you will appreciate why.

I will keep you posted when we eat it but it will be cooked with love, I promise, not shoved into a cold oven I meant to put on half an hour earlier and then heated to spontaneous combustion temperature because we’re all hungry. Perhaps some boiled potatoes with a sorrel sauce? Meanwhile I am planning a sorrel risotto with or without a few prawns. Here I am rerunning the risotto recipe that I gave some months ago to which you add your sorrel at the end. But first you need to plant your sorrel and there is no problem buying a plant online from a website like this. Make sure you give it some decent soil in a pot as big as you have room for. Like most plants it likes plenty of sunshine and plenty of rain but if we are lucky with the rest of September there is time to get one established before Winter. Here is the monster that was planted in July.

sorrel 1

In cooking sorrel disappears much like spinach so although it is lovely to have a few leaves in a salad, it is best kept for soups and sauces unless you’re going to give it the run of your borders.

Sorrel Risotto

500 g risotto rice (Replace 250g of the rice with finely diced vegetables (carrots, celery, courgettes) if you are watching the calories.

50 g butter

50 g olive oil

1 onion or leek finely chopped

2 litres of beef or Marigold vegetable stock (hot)

2 glasses of white wine

an egg yolk beaten with half a cup of double cream

as much sorrel as you can muster

  1. Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
  2. While the onion is softening wash and chop the sorrel and melt it in some butter over a low heat. When it is like a puree, turn off the heat.
  3. Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
  4. Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
  5. Add the stock one ladleful at a time until it is all absorbed. This should take 20 minutes but I find it takes longer, so be patient.
  6. Turn off the heat and add the pre-cooked sorrel, salt and pepper, the egg yolk and cream. Check the seasoning again.
  7. Leave to ‘mantecare’ (to cream) for 3 minutes and then serve.

This risotto is great with grilled white fish on top or a few sautéed prawns. It goes equally well with ripe and mild Dolcelatte but to my mind Parmesan overwhelms the sorrel. You could leave out the egg yolk and cream and put a dollop of burrata into each portion before serving.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.

When it’s too wet to barbecue. (That’ll be August if you’re in England.)

When it’s too wet to barbecue. (That’ll be August if you’re in England.)

There is nothing like the taste of barbecued food. Simple meats and fishes and vegetables are transformed by those smokey flavours into wonderful meals. In England, however, we usually get to barbecue about five times a year (if we’re really keen) and at least two of those occasions will involve the cook standing in the drizzle while the party happens indoors without you. To bypass the weather I have investigated adding a charcoal grill to my kitchen but sadly I accept they are only for the professional – so instead I have finally got to grips with the griddle.

Like you, I have had the cast iron monster lurking at the back of the cupboard for years and it fills the kitchen with smoke whenever I heat it up. Yes, that one. So instead (and I invite you to admire this radical approach) of a charcoal oven I have installed two powerful extractor fans and now I can actually use the griddle in the way it was intended, smoking hot with the emphasis, in my case, on smoking.

The funny thing about Italy is they don’t barbecue – at least not here in the Veneto – even though you could stand outside about 75 per cent of the year and not get wet. But they do griddle all sorts of thing and just recently I have been branching out and doing vegetables the Italian way.

courgettes

Here are some lunchtime courgettes or zucchini which you dress with oil and lemon juice and add to your salad or eat alongside your meat or fish. You’ll notice they look quite pretty too.

Trying to be more adventurous I also bought squid from the local fishmonger but being a novice I didn’t ask him to do prepare it in any way which left me with a quick lesson in squid anatomy. (Basically cut off anything you don’t fancy eating.) Then I brushed the rest with oil and added chilli salt when it came off the heat. I also sneaked in a couple of scallops which were meant to go in the oven as a first course but, hey, it got late and the first course was amalgamated into the only course!

squid

No real marks for presentation but this lot did taste really good!

More Fresh Ideas for your Kind-to-Yourself Lunch : get pickled

More Fresh Ideas for your Kind-to-Yourself Lunch : get pickled

Well now, we all know about Prosciutto Melone (and if you need reminding, take a look  here) but I recently discovered a new twist on this theme which brings together the irresistibly sweet and the tongue-ticklingly piquant. When I was a child water melon was a mouthful of black pips but nowadays I seem to be able to buy them with tiny white edible pips which are much less off-putting and I’ve been feasting on water melon this summer. Add to this an urge to pickle something and, bingo! Sweet and sour lunch and as good to look at as it is to eat.

I guess water melon has some calories in it but it’s also extremely healthy and delicious. Cucumber, we all know, is as good as calorie free (and the pickling only adds a few teaspoons of sugar to a whole cucumber). That leaves whatever protein you fancy – this is very good with all kinds of ham and cold meat as well as clean cheese – by which I mean not the kind that runs all over your plate. Runny cheese is high on my list of delights but not with melon, somehow. Gruyere, Emmental, Ossau Iraty, the primo sale I mentioned the other day, halloumi, anything nice and clean and dry- but that’s just my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. This is the kind of meal that expands children’s tastes if you’re feeding the family and they usually enjoy the contrasts and the colours and the fact that it’s great finger food if you’re little. (In fact you can make very nice smiley faces out of these ingredients should someone need coaxing. Maybe you are someone who needs coaxing to eat?)

As ever taking the time to pickle your cucumber and prepare your melon and arrange the whole thing on a nice white plate is a simple and foolproof way of being kind to yourself, raising your self-esteem little by little and staying healthy. If you’re due a much bigger meal than this it can make a wonderful starter before your pasta, steak or your jam sandwich. Eat this first and you are much more likely to eat what you need afterwards rather than eat on autopilot at the fridge door. Yes, we have all done that! Lights on, nobody home. It’s not naughty. It’s unkind. Be kind to yourself by taking a little trouble and you’ll find it gets easier each time to do.

Water melon with Parma ham and pickled cucumber

pickled cucumber

Salmon Tartare with Pickled Cucumber

Making the pickled cucumber could not be easier. Just chop it into whatever shape and size you fancy and swish over some white wine vinegar into which you have dissolved some sugar. Chill in the fridge until cold and dip in whenever you’re peckish. It last a long time. In fact I defy you not to eat it before it goes off.

Tip : if you want to use your pickled cucumber for something formal like a salmon tartare, cut it into wafer thin slivers before pickling. Dill fronds can also add to its prettiness.

For the salmon, merely take the time to buy skinless salmon fillet as fresh as possible and then dice into tiny cubes. Marinade four hours or overnight in lemon juice, black pepper and some Maldon salt, a dash of olive oil, chopped dill and some finely diced shallot. Stir occasionally until all the salmon has been in contact with the marinade and has changed colour slightly.

Arrange on plates with the cucumber, some black rye bread and some yoghurt or labneh handed separately.

NB For this you do not need sashimi grade salmon because it is really a ceviche and not tartare. The raw salmon is ‘cooked’ by the lemon juice.

Quickie breakfast to set you up for your work-out.

I’ve been reading for years that breakfast should be the big meal of the day and that has never suited me. (I read some research recently which suggests they got that wrong anyway!) My favourite breakfasts are leisurely affairs with boiled eggs, home made granola, bread and jam, lots of coffee. After that delicious and satisfying feast with the Sunday papers and Radio Four I’m also certain to be hungry again by lunchtime. Breakfast of any dimension seems to give my digestion a signal to wake up early and start kicking off.

So normally I stick to fruit salad but some days that just doesn’t cut it so I wanted to share this zippy addition to make your fruit salad a bit different for days when you need some protein first thing but you don’t want to go the whole hog. (LOL)

fruit and cheese

Here is the secret : adding some cheese (primo sale with rocket). Primo sale is a very mild fresh cheese and this version is squeaky so I’m hoping it is also low in fat. Anyway it’s delicious and you could use any cheese you like to the same end. (Roquefort is very satisfying.) Whatever you do you will be saving a ton of calories by not diving into the breakfast cereal. I’ve read that people who live with breakfast cereal visible on the kitchen counter weigh lots more than people with biscuits on show. In fact breakfast cereal bars and so on are often mistaken for health foods because they’re full of oats and fruit and the like. Yes, they’re full of good stuff if you’re about to run a half marathon but if you’re just dragging yourself to the office, think again.

This colourful plate gave me the energy for my work-out with Chalene this morning. Oh, you don’t know about Chalene! I am away from my regular classes which I love, so I have brought with me piyo DVDs which feature the awesome Chalene Johnson who invented piyo. She is gorgeous to look at and chock full of astonishing American enthusiasm and encouragement. By the time she is done with me I feel awesome too! Click on the link to see her in action and you may also be tempted to add her to your arsenal of tools to stay healthy.