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.

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.

 

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.
red-cabbage

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

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.