Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

24 Hour Food Watch

courtyard breakfastIt’s the most transcendentally beautiful morning here in Oxfordshire and I was looking for an excuse to show you pictures of my breakfast in the garden. I came up with the idea of watching my food for 24 hours. A food diary is what they ask you to keep when you join Weightwatchers or similar and usually has sinister overtones of self-denial. But this one is entirely voluntary and I will try not to alter what I put in my mouth to make it look good. Honest! It is just an enquiry into what I eat and how and it begins with my hot milk and honey, cinnamon and turmeric that kicks off my day about 7am with meditation. In Winter this is usually inside. In Venice it is often at the end of the breakwater surrounded by the lapping waves and occasionally a party of swimming Italians who talk as they swim (I kid you not) just as loudly and enthusiastically as they talk during every other activity. Such stamina!

IMG_0470

The empty cup of golden milk!

 

But this morning it is in the kitchen, French windows thrown open, birds singing their little hearts out and the dog wondering if he can help. For the Dalai Lama and others whose state of consciousness is solidly under their control it may be that an inquisitive Labrador is neither here nor there. For me, not so much. However it was a lovely place to drink my milk and sometimes, if the concentration is not showing up, my meditation becomes an appreciation of hot milk and bird life which is still a lovely way to begin the day.

Beau on top of the world

The dog in question on his winter holidays

 

Breakfast came next after getting dressed and before starting work. My favourite cappuccino with turmeric on top, banana and peanut butter wholemeal bread. At the end of the morning I had my breakfast fruit salad for lunch instead. (Very boring but good for my insides.) I would have liked a piece of Gruyere or something with that but none in the fridge. Still shopping imminently so I can fix that craving. There was also a cup of instant coffee along the way and a glass of water.

Breakfast

Peanut butter, banana and wholemeal bread – is this the ultimate breakfast?

 

In the middle of Waitrose I realise I have miscalculated and am struck with that ‘must eat now’ feeling. An apple is no way going to address this! Only divine grace guides me towards a small packet of brazil nuts and away from Snickers (or Marathon as I internally call them in my antique way). There is internal protest but on the other hand I really love nuts. I reckon the calories may be the same but the nuts are protein and therefore count as nutrition – unlike the two butter crunch biscuits I have at home with a cup of tea. Not to worry. Soon I shall start preparing dinner. Some English asparagus is inspiring me to make an hollandaise (which doesn’t always work). After that chicken with garlic, ginger and fresh turmeric is in my head. Whether it will be bread with the asparagus or rice with the chicken depends a bit on how well the hollandaise turns out. Sadly a non-alcohol day today so my trusty alcohol free Cobra beer is in the fridge. Strangely I didn’t miss the alcohol at all on retreat but there’s a real sense of loss at home. Must be because the wine is right there and it’s only my own rule … interesting.

Well it turns out the hollandaise did work! The last of the English asparagus (according to my local shop) is the best we’ve had this year and the two together were sensational. The wholemeal bread once again came into its own and TBH I should have stopped right there.

asparagus

But the chicken with turmeric and garlic and cabbage was by now waiting and a lovely colour. Ignoring the fact that I wasn’t very hungry was ill-judged but I can report that it was a good combination and at a hungrier time would have gone well with rice. Without the coconut milk it is super healthy. With the coconut milk it tasted nicer.

My food for the day drew to a close with more water and a mug of cocoa. So I notice a couple of misjudgments – ones I’ve made before what’s more. I musn’t let myself get over-hungry away from home and especially not in the supermarket. And I don’t enjoy eating stuff I’m not hungry for – I wish I had chilled the chicken for another day.

Here’s the recipe in case you’d like to try it.

 

chicken with turmeric and cabbageChicken with Turmeric, Garlic, Ginger and Cabbage

 

1 chicken breast per person or 4 between 3

fresh turmeric, root ginger and garlic, grated with a microplane

olive oil

cabbage or greens – any sort, shredded

Soften your turmeric, garlic, leeks and root ginger in a large heavy pan (frying pan with lid is ideal) with some olive oil. (I used leeks but you could really add any vegetable that cooks reasonably quickly – courgettes, onions, finely cut carrots, celery.)

Cut your chicken breasts into a size of piece that pleases you and add to the pan with the cabbage. Cook as little as possible until just cooked through. Now taste it and add salt and pepper and decide whether to go for the coconut milk (one tin for two people) or not. If you add the coconut milk bring the pan to the boil and then turn down immediately. Just give it a couple of moments to amalgamate with the rest of the dish and then serve.

If you prefer leave out the coconut milk ands serve with a spoonful of fromage frais or Greek yoghurt.

Rice, couscous, bulgur wheat or bread go well.

Chicken Soup

chicken-soup-1

Sipping once, Sipping twice, Sipping chicken soup with rice.

When my children were young I used to read them the lovely Maurice Sendak book, Chicken Soup with Rice, partly out of allegiance to my beloved, late mother-in-law, Angela and her Jewish heritage. It is a book of months with charming illustrations and a chorus that even the youngest can join in. Strangely enough, for a Jewish grandmother, Angela didn’t actually make chicken soup that I remember. Her duck with apricots was second to none, her salt beef was excellent and her wurstl with eggs as filling and fattening as you could wish but the iconic panacea of chicken soup never figured. So today’s recipe is not what you’d call kosher although for me it ticks many of the boxes.

It is comforting, easily digestible, cheap and home-made. Specifically it is a way of getting the absolute maximum out of your roast chicken once the meat has gone and that satisfies my need to wring the most value I can out of animals in the food chain. It is also a recipe that does not require any special shopping providing you have in your fridge an onion, some potatoes and a carrot or two. In common with most foods that are nutritious and extremely cheap, it is not a quick fix but it isn’t difficult or complicated and it freezes well once it’s made. What is more satisfying than being able to feed yourself healthily and deliciously on a few root vegetables and a chicken carcass that would otherwise go in the bin? If you have a mother-in-law to impress, this recipe is foolproof displaying, as it does, your frugality, ingenuity and creativity in one tasty bowlful. A couple of bowlfuls without bread make a slimming lunch. With good bread it makes a feast.

I promised a vegetarian version of every recipe and of course chicken soup ain’t chicken soup without the chicken. However you can make a very good vegetable soup by roasting the onions first and then using the same recipe minus the chicken. For either version you will need Marigold vegetable stock powder (organic, low-salt or the original) and if by any remote chance you haven’t already converted to this then I urge you to do so now. Keep a drum of this on your shelf to turn any selection of vegetables and onions into excellent soup. You can also add a pinch of it to transform your white sauce into a bechamel.

Home-made Chicken Soup

1. Pay as much for your chicken as you can afford and when you’ve finished with it pop it into a large pan with an onion (skinned) and as many potatoes and carrots (no need to peel) as you can cram in around the carcass. You can add every bit of chicken including the nasty bits you wouldn’t eat. It’s all good for making the soup. Any other vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, greens)* are welcome additions but potatoes and carrots are your starting point. Fill the pan with cold water leaving a sensible amount of space at the top so that it doesn’t boil over. If you haven’t chosen a big enough pan, transfer the ingredients to a larger one now before they are hot!

* a word of caution about broccoli. It has a surprisingly powerful flavour so if you add it to your vegetable soup it will in essence turn out a broccoli soup.

2. Bring to the boil with a lid on and then remove or tilt the lid, turn down the heat and simmer gently for about an hour.

3. Leave to cool with the lid on.

4. Pour off the stock into a jug or bowl that will fit into your fridge.

5. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl to go in the fridge.

6. Now put the chicken carcass on a chopping board and using your fingers take every edible scrap of meat off it and dice finely. Transfer to a saucer or dish and cover with cling film. Dispose of the bones, skin and anything you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth.

7. Put all three items, vegetables, stock and chicken, in their separate containers into the fridge overnight.

8. Next day, the fat will have solidified on top of the stock and you can remove it easily. (You can keep it for dumplings or roast potatoes if there’s enough.)

9. Now blitz the vegetables and the stock in a liquidiser (on slowest setting) or mill by hand. I like it when the vegetables are left reasonably coarse.

10. Reunite the stock and the vegetables in a large clean pan and heat before tasting and adjusting the seasoning using the Marigold stock powder (or salt and pepper). Stir through the diced chicken just before eating so that it doesn’t acquire that unpleasant boiled texture. Fresh herbs finely chopped are a great addition if you have some lurking around.

 

chicken-soupVariations

You can make a traditional Jewish style chicken soup by leaving out the vegetables with the exception of the onions and making sure you don’t boil the carcass for hours. (That makes the stock cloudy). Simmer for an hour and then strain the stock into a clean pan. Now you can either resort to stock powder or reduce the stock you have by continuing to boil off the liquid until it tastes how you want it to. You can now add a little white rice and cook it in the stock.

Chicken Stock

Alternatively you can simply keep the stock or freeze it for use in risottos or soup another day.