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Work, summer and scribbling in cookbooks

What a summer. I had no idea, when I wrote the last post about Dylan’s in Criccieth, that I would be working flat out until the end of September. Not a clue. If I had done, I think I’d have drunk rather more wine…

The rate and extent of work hasn’t just meant that I’ve been a bad blogger. It means I’ve not been quite as committed in the kitchen either – no, I haven’t been forced down the ready-meal route (read the ingredients on 99.9% of supermarket ready meals and you’ll understand why not), but I have been falling back on standards that don’t require much thought any more. Potato salad with sausage? Tick. Pasta with fresh tomato sauce? Tick. Courgette risotto? Tick. And I’ve managed to keep up with breadmaking, though the Flour Quest I planned this time last year didn’t happen. Fell back on reliables there too, and that means using Bacheldre’s Strong White Unbleached Stoneground. Now the work is lessening and it’s soup time again – in the words of Jon Snow and just about any member of House Stark, possibly including the dire wolves, ‘winter is coming’.

Over the summer there was one food-related debate which did make me stop and think quite a bit. It was sparked off by Prue Leith, who asked ‘Whatever happened to serious cookbooks?’ in an article prompted by the imminent-then return of Bake Off. Her theme – essentially and crudely summed up – was that the ‘look of the book dictates the sale’. Someone else divided cookery books into ‘pretty books which you look at, food porn’ and ‘ones you actually use which are covered in gunk’. Personally, I don’t think I’d go so far as to suggest such a deep chasm – I’ve used Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem quite a bit, and that’s surely one of the most beautiful of the relatively recent crop.

pastabilityOn the other hand, and if you can go by the sheer amount of graffiti (‘THIS DOES NOT WORK!‘, ‘don’t use purple cauli, goes vile colour’, ‘not good, weird taste, threw out‘, ‘GO EASY ON THE ****** YOGHURT’, ‘Brilliant, VG!!!!!!’) and food staining, my most used books do seem to be unillustrated, practical, apparently as dry as dust or too specialist to a non-foodie eye, and not that recent.

This, for instance, is the somewhat sticky recipe for pasta tubes with chicken, cream, mushrooms, mustard and Gruyere from Pastability by Lizzie Spender, published in 1987. It got me through a relatively impoverished period when I none the less needed to entertain, and I’m very grateful to it.

Or take Lindsey Bareham’s brilliant 1993 book, A Celebration of Soup, which I’m actually using right now to help me riff on a beetroot recipe. That’s a bit cleaner (I’d moved out of a studio and into somewhere with a bigger kitchen at just that time) but equally annotated. And I’ve used it so much that I’ve split the binding. The beetroot soup, by the way, is delicious. Delicous with knobs on.

Sometimes parts of recipes are underlined with ‘eh??’ written by them where there’s been a bit of an editing shortfall (‘whaddya mean “bring back to the boil”? Never said boil it in the first place!!!) and sometimes there’s been nothing to underline, which is emphasised by the comment ‘WHAT COURGETTE? How much courgette? Where’s the fecking courgette?’ to quote one of my entries in another book by an eminent (and anonymous here) authority.

Prue Leith seemed to be stressing that the rise of the telly chef was almost killing off the serious cook book, but I would argue against that – or I would some of the time, ahem. One of my most used books is an early illustrated TV tie-in, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery, published in the same year as Pastability. My graffiti habit continues here, sometimes with big circles round parts of the text such as ‘the mixture should be very moist’ which I have annotated with ‘not too moist; it doesn’t thicken that much’, and sometimes with general comments like ‘yum!!!’. And I still annotate / deface / scrawl on books: Jerusalem, for instance, tells me that I really liked the hummus recipe and its addition of ice-cold water (‘WORKS!’) but that I prefer it with ‘more lemon/less tahini’. And it also tells me that there are editorial whoopsies (‘what “remaining herbs”???’) and notes how I adapted recipes (‘too long for fresh broad beans from the garden; add at the end of cooking’). These pages are much less sticky, but that’s just because I’ve grown into a bigger kitchen and no longer have to prop my recipe book against the wall by the stove.


So, basically, Prue, I don’t think I am using one type of book more than the other. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I grew up as a cook with brightly illustrated books; though I did buy Elisabeth David in Penguin paperbacks, I don’t remember cooking anything from them, though I loved reading her evocative text. In my case I think the heaviest graffiti in the unillustrated books – as in Soups – are often because I’ve just been using the book for longer. Give me another couple of years and I’m sure Jerusalem will be covered in scribble. Hopefully not quite as sticky as Pastability, mind. And here’s a reminder of the earlier form of illustrated book:




Happy Christmas!

I know there are plenty of things I should be doing – wrapping the last gifts, bringing in logs, finding cranberry juice / chestnuts / the dates I bought months ago – but if there’s one constant in my life, it’s a belief in the importance of displacement activity.

To which end, I have just decanted the apricot vodka I made earlier (though to a lightly different recipe to the one at the end of that post), and I have to say it’s pretty good… well, it would have been silly not to try it, guv. I’ve returned some of the apricots to the jar and added the remains of a bottle of Stoly, so the next lot may be even more – um, tasty. Yep, tasty. And, of course, wildly alcoholic.

Oh, yes, that reminds me:



Here’s what was left of my crab apples at this time four years ago, when we were in the deepest snow we’ve had for years. And fingers crossed for no repeats – despite it being incredibly picturesque. And warm, with the house buried in snow. Oh, OK then, let’s have a repeat. But only after I’ve got those logs in.

Optimism, vegetables and the gardening gods

Every year it’s the same. I plant more of almost everything than I need for the veg garden and give some of it away. Then the rest of it weakens or gets a terrible disease or is eaten by slugs or just keels over for no apparent reason – rather like sheep, incidentally, though sheep are less likely to be eaten by slugs – and I have to find replacements from elsewhere.

This year, it’s the tomatoes: my first lot developed early blight. Astonishingly early blight. Straight into the bin; wash everything in sight – and no tomatoes. Due to a mixture of friends’ generosity and some swift ecological elbowing at a Green Fair and plant swap, I now have replacements. Seven Gardener’s Delights, one Marmande, one Alicante and two complete mysteries because the person who brought them to the plant swap didn’t bother to label them. Hey, it’s an adventure.

veg patch waitingThen there’s the weather. All my plants have come on beautifully in the last couple of weeks, and it was time to put the windbreak up around the veg patch, put it up again after it blew down the first time, put it up a third time with new stakes and more swearing, accept that ground-in dirt doesn’t come off hands easily and that all jeans have muddy knees. I was a bit late, and it had to be done.

The yellow mangetout were muscling the lid off the cold frame and the beans were making a bid for freedom. The dill and flat-leaved parsley suddenly decided to behave like strange herby versions of Jack’s beanstalk and all the spuds burst out of the ground at once. The spring onions put on a couple of inch in growth overnight and the kale I’d been prevailed to take at the plant swap broke its pot. I swear I can hear the garlic growing. Everything which wasn’t already out got planted out over the weekend. I was chuffed; the veg patch looked good. But the gardening gods were watching out for horticultural hubris. Yesterday was a day of one thunderstorm after another, as if they hadn’t made their point with the first one, and today looks set to be the same. Damn.

So why do I bother?

Simply, because I’d hate myself if I didn’t, given that I have the space and (sometimes) the ability. I can grow the varieties I want and I can make economic decisions which make sense. Take, for instance, the humble onion. I can buy decent onions at a reasonable price, but decent shallots are a different matter (as, given some spectacular recent price hikes, are spring onions). So I grow them instead. I’m picky about potatoes, and my favourites are Ratte. Used to get them at Borough Market; Borough Market now 250 miles away and 12 years in the past. So I grow them.

And when you grow your own, you make the decisions about when to harvest. No cricket-ball-sized beetroot here; no giant furry broad beans that taste of cardboard. Oh yes, the beans. I do like beans – even if I always overdo it – and there are some delicious varieties out there which never see a shop. Until recently I grew Borlottis, but I’ve stopped now; instead the space is devoted to Cosse Violette, a new gold bean (called ‘Gold Bean’ – hm, wonder what colour it is, and could it be – shh – a bean?) and the small and sweet Cherokee Trail of Tears. Try asking for that in the Co-op…

tomato parentsAnd then there are happy accidents. I save seed and sometimes this can produce interesting things, like the year I produced the Costoluto Russian – or possibly a Black Fiorentino – tomato. They were delicious, but further attempts at deliberately crossing Black Russians and Costoluto Fiorentinos produced nothing exciting. Or, indeed, edible. Fluff. Not good. But you never know; I could have made tomato-breeding history.

These, by the way, are the parents, separated by a plant pot, and the unintended cross had all sorts of advantages. The plants were not as temperamental as the CFs and the fruit not as vine-breakingly enormous as the BRs, though I did miss the opportunity to repeat silencing the pub with a single 500g tomato, as I had the previous year. Again, you can’t recreate that experience in Tesco.

But I’m missing the most obvious advantage: taste. A warm tomato, fresh off the plant, eaten on the quiet when you’re supposed to be harvesting for the pot – nothing beats it. Those baby broad beans are packed with nuttiness; the potatoes actually taste of something; the beans each have a different feel and flavour. OK, so I may be picking caterpillars off the Cavalo Nero for ages but it’s worth it to have a ribollita with real punch. And when it comes to furtive picking, you have to go a long way to beat the sneaked pea. Or several. Now all I have to do is work out how to protect an entire veg patch from the vagaries of the weather.

To ramson or not to ramson…

Ramsons – aka wild garlic, stink bombs or stinking nanny (I kid you not), correctly Allium ursinum, has been, for the past couple of years, the hot fave trendy wild food. Think forgaging, think ramsons: that’s been the message in some quarters.

ramsonsThe plants are easy to identify (even easier once they’re in flower), they’re easy to gather and they’re prolifically present in hedgerows and woodland – and my garden – just about now. And now’s the perfect time, because the leaves are still young. Plus it’s the start of the hungry gap, the time when stored fruits and vegetables have been used up and the new season is yet to get going.

The recent popularity of wild garlic is nothing new; it’s been a useful herb for time out of mind. And that extends to more recent history too; the leaves were frequently collected and used during WW2 as a substitute for the flavouring previously provided by onions.

But – and I’m saying this as possibly the most enormous fan of all things allium since the Roman invasion of Britain – ramson leaves often leave me underwhelmed. Either they’re too strong or too slimy or they look revolting once cooked or they’re tough or – well, they can really, really dominate everything else. I recently slung some in a Thai green curry to see if they could hold their own, and they could. Roger Phillips almost left ramsons out of Wild Food – two sentences, no recipe –  and I’m coming round to the point of view that he might have been right.

That’s despite the fact that wild garlic is so common round me that the air can take on a distinct and powerful garlic scent – smell – at this time of year. Places are even named after it: Crafnant near me, just outside Beddgelert, means ‘valley of the wild garlic’…

But it goes against the grain, leaving such a prolific resource untouched. I’ve found two uses I do like, and like very much. The first is a wild garlic oil, made by steeping some young leaves in olive oil for a few days.

The second use is more traditional:  with fish.IMG_8576 Gerard, after all, said the leaves made a good sauce for fish but fit only for those with ‘a strong constitution and labouring men’. I’m not the latter, and I probably haven’t got the former, so I use it to wrap round the fish instead.

Salmon wrapped in ramsons
serves 2

5-6 ramson leaves, young and fresh
2 fillets of salmon
1 slice of lemon, and a squeeze as well

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees conventional, 180 degrees fan, GM 6. Spread out a piece of foil big enough to wrap the salmon generously. Put two of the leaves on the foil, cut the slice of lemon in half and put a piece on each leaf. Then put the fillets – head to toe, slim end next to fat end – on top of the leaves. Tuck more leaves between the fillets and lie two on top. Then pull the foil up around the fish and squeeze in some lemon juice. Bring the foil over the top and fold the sides together into a loose, but well-sealed,  parcel.

Put the parcel in an oven-proof dish and put it in the oven for 15 minutes. Carefully unwrap the parcel – the steam inside is hot – and check that the salmon is cooked, which will depend on the size of the fillets: they should be opaque all the way through and not transparent. Reseal and return to the oven if necessary for a few more minutes.

Once cooked, unwrap the fish and remove the leaves from the top and middle. Carefully lift the fillets from their parcel and off the lemon and bottom leaves, and put them on a plate to cool. Serve with a green salad (without ramsons, unless you’re addicted), sauté potatoes and lemon mayonnaise.

Spring on a plate.
It’s not that I haven’t tried other things, as often recommended. Ramson pesto: too strong by half, takes ages before everything you eat afterwards stops tasting of garlic. Ramson leaves in salad? Use one, and make it tiny; otherwise, ditto. Ramson leaves added to saute potatoes? If you’ve ever had burnt garlic, you’ll know the risk. Let’s just say I contemplated leaving home. And had to wash everything. Maybe I just have access to very strong wild garlic…