The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

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.

 

Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

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Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Beetroot – great tidings of comfort and joy!

My first day at school introduced me to two things I immediately fell in love with. My Kindergarten teacher Mrs Heilbron who smelled of Yardley’s Apple Blossom was the first object of my adoration. Unlike my precarious relationship with my mother, she was predictable and easy to please. Sadly Mrs Heilbron with her exciting name and her delicate beige shoes for difficult feet of a certain age passed out of my life at the end of the year when I moved up to Transition. (Enter Miss Mainwaring, another name that fascinated me but not an easy woman to fall in love with which sadly, may be why she remained grey-haired but unmarried.)

What mysteries and surprises it brings, one’s first adventures away from home. There was another girl called ‘Elizabeth’ for starters! And then there were the biscuits. My mother’s kitchen ran to fig rolls (my mother’s favourites), Nice biscuits with their coating of sparkling sugar crystals, custard creams, malted milk and (high days and holidays) Huntley and Palmers milk and honey which were exotically oval and had not only a dab of cream like the custard creams but a window in the top filled with honey.  At four and a half I thought I had biscuits covered. But no! When break time came we all headed for the little cloth pockets on the wall with our names on where we put our biscuits on arrival. Bourbons, digestives, biscuits in foil wrappers, pink wafers, chocolate fingers emerged from other children’s pockets – a whole world of biscuits I had never seen.

 

 

But what about the beetroot? Get to the point, woman. Thank you, I’m coming to that, as advertised, never fear. Now I cannot share with you the kindness of Mrs Heilbron but the second revelation of that long-ago day was beetroot. In my school lunch I tasted my first beetroot in tiny delicious cubes and was bowled over by the fabulous new taste and the memorable colour. Since then I have of course encountered beetroot in other places but it’s never tasted the same as I remembered. I will draw a kindly veil over the mistake that is beetroot in vinegar. I mean, really. Vacuum packed, pre-cooked beetroot was okay but very messy and unexciting in taste. Once transported to a kitchen of my own complete with recipe books and the choice of what to eat I tried beetroot again. This time I fell prey to cooks who recommend baking beetroot in the oven and then ‘sloughing off the skin with a paper towel’. LOL. Great way to burn your fingers and stain everything within reach. The beetroot tasted okay but it simply isn’t worth it. I resigned myself to a beetroot-free life.

Step up Nadine Redzepi once more. (Yes, you’re sick of hearing about her but I’m not done yet.)  Her recipe for sweet potato cakes with cumin beetroot and salted yoghurt revealed to me that you can perfectly well eat beetroot raw and it tastes the way I remember it all those years ago.  It’s probably even better for you as well and oh boy, you won’y believe how good for you it is. You can add the cumin and olive oil and lemon juice that the recipe requires – or not. It’s delicious either way and now I discover it has its own website AND its benefits include the following :

  1. Lowering blood pressure
  2. Preventing or slowing the progress of dementia by increasing blood flow to the brain
  3. It contains a powerful antioxidant and antioxidants prevent against heart disease and stroke, slow the growth of cataracts, slow ageing and generally turn you into a bionic human being
  4. antioxidants are anti-inflammatory so good for infections and all kinds of inflammation
  5. It acts as a natural viagra by increasing blood flow to the genitals
  6. It actually makes you run quicker

I mean what more do you need? It’s not even expensive and you don’t have to buy it online from specialists. Finally this is how you prepare it without staining your hands. Peel with a potato peeler and grate or chop wearing, Ta-Da! disposable gloves. These are also invaluable for peeling and grating raw turmeric, celeriac, stoning damsons and anything else that stains.

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So I shall be introducing beetroot into every week’s menu and trying out the Beetroot and Chocolate Cake recipe on the beetroot website. I shall report back, natch. I am a great fan of things that taste great and do me good and I’m adding raw beetroot to the precious hoard.

 

 

 

Sometimes we all need Cookies

I was that girl. I was the one who sat at her corner booth eyeing your table full of mess and sticky hands. I was the one who cleared my throat a little too loud in the check out line at TJ Maxx while your kid had a meltdown. And yes, I’m the girl who turned to give…

via Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies — Wood & Spoon

 

I remember so well how children looked before I had them and I loved this post-childbearing confession. Meanwhile the recipe for cookies has wormed its way into my consciousness and will jig about there until I make them. Peanut butter and chocolate is a combination dreamed up by someone who wanted us to have a good time.

New Year New Ideas

New Year New Ideas

I can see how my entire life would have been a lot jollier if I hadn’t had a total aversion to things which did not come easily to me. The feelings of shame, disappointment, frustration, self-hatred and defeat which crop up when I get things wrong have separated me from achievements within my grasp. In fact I have watched others with less skill walk past me just because they were prepared to learn. Here’s my new year’s quote which is going up on flashing lights on the kitchen wall :

‘Say to yourself : but what if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that you may begin to listen to her.’

Now this excellent advice was from a dog trainer and the ‘her’ he was listening to was a Pug! But it came up in an article about psychotherapy because it’s a very good starting point for a therapist who is learning to listen to clients. In 2018 I have the idea of approaching myself like that, with my ears open. Let me rephrase slightly :

What if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that I may begin to listen to myself.  

So I shall start in the kitchen now that my food production is scaling down from the industrial (Christmas) proportions of feeding 12 people three time a day to the more normal one or two, there will be less firefighting and more space to make mistakes. I feel happy enough in the kitchen to experiment with assuming I am wrong about what I can do and what I can’t do and opening my heart to truly new experiences. One of the wonderful cookbooks I received for Christmas (yes, my family know me well) is Salt, Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat and this will be my workbook because this is not the kind of cookbook I would buy myself.  It’s about technique and a rather scientific approach to cooking which is an area where I feel less able. Give me a book with lovely pictures and I will produce you my delicious versions of the food which I can rarely recreate exactly because I don’t measure or time things. Diagrams of salt absorption? Scientific explanation of how different fats affect pastry? That’s not me at all. Except, turns out, it can be. It is.

Because Samin has written the book so engagingly and encouragingly I am gripped by learning how to use salt properly, by different types of acid and what they are for. This book is for accomplished cooks and for beginners and it is a delightful read. I begin to hope that it will genuinely increase my skills without impinging on flair and imagination. First I have discovered that I can bear to become aware of the areas where I lack skill – and that is no small thing in itself – I generally cover them up with a passion for aesthetics. But the truth is I would dearly love to be able to the tricky, technical things  that I see others do and it just may be that 2018 is the year when I can learn. Watch this space.

Now I’d like to share with you another recipe from Nadine Redzepi’s delicious book which I have to say I adapted to my time schedule and the ingredients I had to hand and you may want to do that too. (The ingredients in brackets are my substitutions or suggestions).

Or you may want to take the trouble to muster the right ingredients before you start and take the time to follow the recipe exactly. Steering a healthy, creative, pragmatic and kind line between these two approaches is experimental work in itself.

Beef-Glazed Celeriac with Buttermilk Sauce

Celeriac – this is the main ingredient so for 4 people you need about 2 and a half pounds or a kilo

Rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)

Beef or veal demi-glace 240 ml (and here is how to make a vegetable equivalent)

(beef demi-glace is a finishing jus sold in sachets in Waitrose and doubtless many other places. Or you could make one. The point is that it is full of umami flavour so if you’re vegetarian you will need to follow the steps on the link above to make a vegetable umami bomb. This time a few teaspoons of Marigold is not going to hack it. And if you can’t do that I would try some toasted sesame oil brushed on instead of a jus. It should produce something of the richness effect. Add a little liquid at the same time.)

pine nuts 3 tablespoons

salted butter 200g

curly kale, 2 large leaves (or any substantial green vegetable such as broccoli, chard or what you have in)

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 2 tablespoons freshly grated

Buttermilk 60 ml, preferably full fat

(I used kefir as I didn’t have buttermilk)

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 or 160 with a fan. Peel the celeriac and chop into 4 slabs each about 8mm/3/4 inch wide. (I made mine too thin the first time). Save the other parts of celeriac for soup or puree.

Grease a baking dish large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer.

Turn the slices to coat them in the oil and cook for 30 minutes before turning over and cooking for another 30 minutes.

Raise the oven temperature to 200 and pour over the demiglace. Continue cooking and basting for another 20-30 minutes. Add a drop of water if it gets too dry.

Meanwhile toast the pine-nuts dry in a small frying pan.

Melt the butter and whisk over the heat until it turns a lovely nutty brown. Keep warm.

Fry the kale in small pieces, discarding tough stems, in the pan used for the pine nuts and some of the oil. Drain on kitchen towel. (I added a few chilli flakes to the kale but probably better without.)

Sprinkle the parmesan over the celeriac for the last few moments in the oven.

Stir the buttermilk into the browned butter over a gentle heat and arrange on four plates. To which add slices of celeriac and a garnish of kale leaves and pine nuts.

This dish was totally unexpected and wonderful. If you are not vegetarian do make the effort to get the demi-glace or jus. The celeriac becomes a truly meaty and different vegetable under its influence.