Cooking for the President

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Leah Chase and a healing bowl of Gumbo

“Meet 94 four year old Leah Chase. For seventy years she has led the kitchen at New Orleans famous Dooky Chase restaurant. During her time she’s hosted US Presidents, and civil rights activists, and music legends from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson. Her specialty is serving creole food specialties like gumbo, fried chicken and sweet potatoes. Dan Saladino sits down with Leah as she tells her story through the food she’s cooked and asks whether a restaurant can change the course of a country.
This post is another small tribute to Leah Chase, outstanding human being that she is, and also another tribute to BBC Radio Four’s The Food Programme.  The complex and intimate relationship between food and love and community and politics is explored in this interview with Leah Chase from New Orleans who has cooked through real live hurricanes and the humdrum hurricanes of political change. Her message is simple. We are all human, we all need feeding and we are all here to help each other. It’s is about ‘coming together‘, it is about integration. You can imagine how my psychotherapist’s ears pricked up at that. Integration and kindness are my favourite words and this lady embodies both. I am also a great believer in ‘the power of food to bring us together and help make sense of the world.’
Everybody has to eat’, she says, ‘ If you can feed them it makes them happy. It is a good life. One way of thanking is to do for others.‘ I once heard an extremely eminent consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist say much the same thing although it took longer. Working with extremely dysfunctional patients on the ward she found the best treatment building self-esteem and a sense of shared reality was to cause people to help each other. One way of thanking is to do for others. Yes, indeed and it reduces psychosis as well.
Leah was six in 1929 and she knows firsthand about discrimination, segregation and poverty. Maybe that is why coming together seems so important to her and why she has such a lot to teach us. She has had a hard life ‘but not a hungry one‘. Her people knew to plant things,  raise a few chickens ‘and your hog‘.
(A word here about our own hog, a stately Large Black pig called Porcia (sic) whose eight piglets will be running around for another few months to come before they go the great sausage machine in the sky and crackling is back on the menu.)
Leah went to work in a fancy restaurant before she had ever eaten in one and she loved it. In the New Orleans of the 1930s she was 16 and adored her job as a waitress. Why? ‘Because you make people happy. If I could walk good today I would wait tables because I loved it.’ At 94 her waitressing days are behind her but she is queen of Creole cooking and in any case, you get the feeling that Leah Chase would have found a way to love whatever she did. She is that kind of person.
She married a jazz musician and that meant that her restaurant, in due course, was full of musicians and music, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she began entertaining presidents. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, George Bush paid more than one visit. Her kitchen underwater Leah pulled out all the stops to create a full scale Creole feast worthy of a president and, not surprisingly, President Obama sought her out too. Famously he got off on the wrong foot with Leah by asking for the hot sauce to adulterate his bowl of gumbo. “You told him off good,” cackle Leah’s friends and the president enjoyed the smack on the wrist by all accounts or it didn’t stop him from returning whenever he could. Is Leah expecting President Trump to drop by? Her answer is full of wisdom. “I’m still trying to understand this man. I don’t know whether talking to him will matter. We don’t want walls… We want people to come together. We need one another… Or our whole world will be destroyed.’
Leah believes in always having a dream and focussing on the positive in life. Her advice is free and she has no axe to grind. You could do worse than take it. ‘We give up too soon. If we just hang in there and do whatever we have to do it’s going to be alright.
So I have nothing to add to that apart from this kitchen basic recipe for red cabbage which might fill a hungry spot. Worth mentioning perhaps that it costs peanuts, it’s low in calories and very tasty.
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Red Cabbage with Apple, Onion and Beetroot

Small red cabbage chopped
Large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Large onion, sliced
2 small beetroot (optional), chopped
salt and pepper
1 tblsp Olive oil
2 tbsp really good Balsamic vinegar
Put all the ingredients in a heavy pan with a lid and cook on a slow heat for half an hour. Eat immediately with anything that takes your fancy. A couple of slices of good ham and a dollop of fromage frais go well but grilled white fish or a slice of Cheddar or Dolcelatte would do just as well with some nice dark bread.

What happens when things go wrong

halibutHalibut at the Restaurant Pierre, Macon

The second night in France was in Macon where the hotel had a plumbing failure and there was no water. That’s right. Not just no hot water. No water at all. After a day’s driving, needing a shower and all the usual conveniences, this put me effortlessly in touch with my default strategy when things go wrong. I have a tantrum. Adult tantrums are not the kind you see children having as they drum their heels on the supermarket floor – they are much quieter than that and more deadly. When I am in the grip of one such my mind rejects what is happening over and over again. I bang my head against the wall of reality as (if my preferences were of any interest to God or True Nature or whatever it is that unfolds around us and keeps dashing our fondest hopes on the rocks of what actually is). Noticing my tantrum I felt about three years old and faintly ridiculous but I kept this internal wailing up for at least an hour or so. I didn’t know what else to do.

What else can we do when we can’t bear what has happened, when our plans are spoiled or our hearts broken? Eventually I remembered what has helped in the past. It can really help to humour that three year old full of rage rather than shaming or scolding her. She needs to learn that she is valuable even though she cannot control things around her. We need to bear with her discomfort and allow her to climb down from that high horse into loving arms. Until then let her throw things and blame people and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself or anyone else.

Eventually I accepted the inevitable and we went off, unwashed, to the Restaurant Pierre which is a small Michelin one star establishment with lovely staff and delicious food. The halibut if always my fish of choice since it doesn’t seem possible to eat it except in restaurants. This one did not die in vain. It was moist and flavoursome and beautifully set off, as you can see, by delicate vegetables.

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The pre-dessert plate was almost good enough to eat.

However we saved ourselves for the Grand Marnier souffle, again on the grounds that this is not a dish I often knock out at home.  The photo does not do it justice but it was excellent especially with the tiny iced sorbet side dish.souffle

Whilst this is not the kind of food I want to eat very often it was extremely skilfully prepared and gorgeously presented. Next stop Italy where everything will be quite different.

From Asthall to Venice

dawn-lightDawn in Asthall, December 2016

Returning from Venice to London on the train via Germany, one of the fascinating things that tells you you’re changing region, changing climate, changing mentality, is the change in food. Food reflects all of these things : the weather, the appetite, the way people eat. Leaving Santa Lucia station on the night train you leave behind pretty good Italian station food : pizza and toasted sandwiches along with a fully stocked shop overflowing with the sweet things Italians love to give and to travel with. Biscuits, cakes, chocolates as well as different wines and aperitifs. By the time you hit the mountains, where the people speak German but are technically Italian, the food on offer is well on the way to including potatoes and dumplings with polenta as a half way house. The travellers boarding at Trieste or further down the line are differently built and the universal clink of ice in a glass of orange or red aperitivo is heard no longer. Beer becomes the order of the day.  The people begin to look different. As they get taller and heavier and by and large blonder, the  buildings change from the Italian flat-topped to the butterfly rooves of the chalets.

For myself I prefer the journey going South towards the sun and the sweet things and that I am about to do! Tomorrow we set off in the car towards Venice and I thought I would share the food with you along the way. Tonight, Asthall. Tomorrow, Calais. Watch this space.

Asthall Manor

asthall-manorThere is really no excuse for this photo here in my blog except that I was out walking the dog about 7.30 yesterday morning when it was minus 7 and I was bowled over by the beauty of the manor in the frost. I wanted to share it with you. We are renting a small flat in this wondrous building whilst there are builders in our own house and we count ourselves pretty lucky! Former tenants include the Mitfords before they moved to Swinbrook down the road but these days the manor is known for the astonishing sculpture exhibition that happens here every two years and called Onform. The gardens are also exceptional and open to the public in season so we have landed in a very blessed spot.

 

Since it is proper Winter now I also wanted to offer you this pudding that I made with a glut of cooking apples from the manor’s vegetable garden and the end of a small loaf. I suppose it is an Apple Charlotte but not one of the beautifully constructed sort. This one

apple-charlotte  is rather haphazard although I have to say very delicious. Bread and butter and sugar beneath and on top. Stewed apple in the middle. Cook in the oven on a moderate heat until the bread and butter is crispy. It felt sensationally English and full of historical resonance to be eating this in our manor flat deep in the Oxfordshire countryside.

This is Your Life : Feast Upon its Beauty

crab-apples

A long time ago now I had a dream about a spaceship that changed my life. The spaceship spoke to me and this was its message : This is your life. Its meaning will ever be hidden from you. Feast upon its beauty. On days (do you have these?) when I wake up with my fair share of nameless dread and meaninglessness I try to put these disturbing feelings into this context. It is all part of the beauty, the chiaroscuro of true nature, even the stuff we don’t like. Life, like great art, incorporates the dark side of our nature. The textures and tastes of my life, taken all together, create a richness and an infinitely varied experience that I could not possibly cobble together out of my preferences.

Because it is not a taste many seek out food manufacturers are beginning to remove bitterness from their products where possible, thus reducing the vast menu of complex flavours that nature offers. They would pander to our preferences – to our detriment, I think. (You have already heard my eulogy to radicchio and the castelfranco lettuce). Radio 4’s The Food Programme has in its archive an exploration of bitterness and its importance in our diet.  It is hard to choose what is rich and beautiful if it is not also sweet and pleasant but I think this is what psychotherapy helps us to do. We learn to love and tend to the infant within that wants sweetness in the mouth and fulness in the belly even as we experiment with the more exciting pleasures of adulthood and I don’t just mean the pinot noir. I mean the dangerous pleasures of autonomy.

Take a risk. It can be interesting to allow yourself to get hungry. What does it feel like? What does it mean to you? Hungry for what? Take another risk. Try something new. This is your life. Feast upon its beauty.

This morning old trees in my garden are bowed down with their tiny fruit and today I want to sing the humble crab apple. it is the day to make crab apple jelly, turning inedible sourness into a spoonful of something piquant which can cut through the fatty tastes of cheese and sausage. A good crab apple jelly can elevate a plate of cold meat or a dish of yoghurt with seeds, to the status of a feast. And if you’re not near a crab apple tree you can use supermarket apples instead or replace some of the apples with cranberries for a pinker jelly.

Crab Apple Jelly

It’s a two day process making jelly so I will share it with you over this weekend but don’t worry if you’re too busy for that. There is a half way point at which you can put the fruit in the freezer and come back when you’ve more time. Tip : put a date in the diary to come back!

Equipment

Jam jars, lids and labels

At least 4 wooden spoons

Large muslin cloth or a jelly making kit with a tripod and a bag. If you’re using the cloth you need to find an upturned stool or a hook somewhere in your kitchen from which to suspend it to drain into a large pan or clean bucket beneath. I used to use a light fitting that stuck out from the wall far enough (removing the shade and the bulb, of course!). Now I have graduated to a ready made jelly bag and tripod.

Ingredients

Equal weight cleaned fruit and sugar

Water

Method

First get out there and pick the crab apples, as many as you can lug home. Children will help for about two minutes but that’s okay. They like it when you’re outside with them. Then wash them (the fruit and possibly the children) and as you take them from the water throw away the leaves and twigs and damaged fruit. Once you have done this you don’t have to make the jelly today. If your children are helping they will have had more than enough by now. Stick the clean fruit in a plastic carrier bag and put it in the freezer until you have time and all the things you need are to hand. (Now, full of the virtue of having been outside picking apples,  you can watch that film or make little Hugo’s day by playing Monopoly.)

  1. Weigh the fruit that’s left and put in a deep and heavy pan. Small fruit need no further preparation. Larger varieties can be cut in half. No coring. No peeling. Hurrah.
  2. Add 750 ml water for every kilo of fruit
  3. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about an hour until the fruit is very soft.
  4. Let cool and then strain through a muslin napkin or any fine rag you have available. Leave to drain through the muslin overnight and don’t squeeze the bag as it clouds the jelly.

jelly-bag

Tomorrow

Tomorrow, or on the day you choose to make your jelly, you will need sugar. Just granulated will do but you can also use the special jam sugar if you have it. How much sugar depends on how much fruit your starting with.  Have available in the larder the same weight in sugar as you had clean fruit, that should be fine.

A bientôt.