Entries Tagged 'Cookery Books and Food Writing' ↓

Anthony’s Authentic™ Soupe ou Pistou

Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.

I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.

The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.

Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.

One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.

Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.

Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.

So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.

Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:

If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.

Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.

In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.

Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.

Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup

Pistou:

For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.

Dr Sister Outlaw asks, ‘do the basics matter’ and ‘what is the world coming to with these young people’?

I’m loving Australian Masterchef 2010, although it’s pretty different to the first season. Last year I didn’t watch seriously until the major personalities had emerged. Even so, it was clear that each contestant was seriously interested in a wide range of cooking styles and was a reliable all-rounder, as well as being able to demonstrate flair and insight.

But this year, night after night, I sit there tweeting (which, as Zoe and other tweeps have said, is more than half the fun of viewing) complaining about the incompetence of this lot and their constant moans (and tears): “I’ve never … [cooked Thai, filleted fish, seen a live chook, made a curry from scratch] before”. And although I initially forgave Kate for using a microwave because she made a great case for it, she was so ignorant that if she hadn’t been eliminated I would have microwaved her.

This week in the eliminations Jonathan “The Terminator” saw off “Soggy” Adele (thanks whoever tweeted that epithet). He’d also easily despatched Devon “No Nickname Necessary”. Why? Because of his technical competence. He was superb at handling eggs and had actually thought about the chemistry of tomato paste and that it does not enhance a bolognaise unless you cook it for hours. When I was discussing this with my bloke, who is learning to cook, he said “I always put tomato paste in bolognaise”, which kind of underscores my point – Adele failed because she cooks by the “always” method, rather than being analytical about what she is doing.

Home cooks like me usually have a good sense about how to dish up good tasting food, but I would argue that a chef thinks much more deeply about the ways in which the chemistry and physics of cooking affect taste. The highest expression of this is molecular gastronomy, which is iconoclastic in the way it challenges rules and understandings but does through via highly refined technique. You could say Masterchef teaches home cooks to think about chemistry and physics (certainly Gary and George try), but you can’t teach contestants how to break rules if they don’t know any rules to start with.

Then I read this Associated Press article about food snobbery. Apparently wee young things have not got a clue about cooking technique because they don’t read cookbooks any more but source their info from teh internetz:

“The twentysomethings right now are probably one of the most educated food generations ever. And by that I mean they can talk to you about foie gras or cooking sous vide or the flavor profile of a Bordeaux,” said Cheryl Brown, editorial director of the popular website Slashfood.

“But what they can’t do is truss a chicken or cook a pot roast. So there’s this funny balance of having an amazing breadth of food knowledge but not having the kitchen basics to back it up,” she said.

Hmmm. I’m not Gen Y but I don’t think we can blame teh internetz. For one thing, the web is full of people showing off their technique (I’ll often google when I am stumped about how to do something I’ve not done before). But if the current Masterchef contestants are any guide, this article may be bang on the mark.

But who or what can we blame for this problem? Maybe Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson (who I love, btw), for dumbing food down to reliable combinations? Maybe providore types, for telling us that only the most exclusive items from the most rarefied locations can be considered edible? Or is this just another Gen Y bashing exercise, and the truth is there is no problem at all?

An open thread, on whatever you feel like saying about food, technique, Masterchef, the contestants’ obvious hatred of Jonathan, Gen Y and food knowledge.

In search of lost recipes

So remember that I’m a cookbook nerd? Sick and home in bed with a laptop one day this week, I saw this tweet from @eleg_sufficiency – simply brilliant idea for anyone with too many cookbooks and too little time to search through them > Cook & Eat

That’s me suckered. I checked out the Cook & Eat project, which is called Gobbledybook, a search engine for cookbooks by Seattle photographer, stylist and food blogger Lara Ferroni .

It’s a clever idea to use web searching mechanisms to render the (beautiful, expensive) books you already own more useful – for years Harold McGee has been using a sidebar link to a Google Books search of his On Food and Cooking at his site News for Curious Cooks as a super-charged index. I also use food blog search a lot, and have recently started using forage, the Australian food blog search engine (and you’ll find both of those in the sidebar).

The difference with Gobbledybook is that it searches cookbooks, not blog posts. And I have a lot of cookbooks, although not as many as Pat does.

Cookbook shelf

Gobbledybook seems to have a reasonable selection of Australian content, with titles by Luke Nguyen, Curtis Stone, Bill Granger and *cough* Donna Hay. Ottolenghi is in there, and a few baking and vegetarian books, 60 in all to date for a total of nearly 5000 recipes. It has started as Ferroni’s own collection, and she will expand it with more of her titles and is encouraging others to start logging their own recipes.

It requires you to sign in with facebook, which I don’t like. It’s unclear about how the sites interact, and the sign-in box makes it clear they might publish to your wall. I’m worried that if I accidentally look up a Donna Hay recipe it could get posted to my Facebook profile and I will lose the respect of my loved ones. (Updated: more seriously, if you purchased a book via Gobbledybook while logged in through Facebook, Facebook might keep your financial data without asking first.)

As it so often happens, someone else has had the same great idea. Another recently launched service called Eat Your Books does pretty much the same thing. In both cases, ingredients lists but not method are entered, there being no copyright in an ingredients list. Eat Your Books is in beta, but is still considerably more developed with 16,521 Cookbooks and 240,795 recipes entered. It costs US$25 per year or (for a limited time only!) $50 for a lifetime membership. There’s a 30 day free trial, which I’m doing at the moment. I can see myself handing over the $50 at the end of it.

Gobbledybook is a charming name the first time you encounter it, but gets pretty tedious to type. And “EYB” makes it a lot easier to stick to twitter’s 140 characters. The problem is, I’ve found Gobbledybook to be pretty buggy and it’s certainly not intuitive to use. Perhaps that comes from it being an individual’s project expanded? EYB is much better designed and has a more developed search function. You can request that books be added and indexed.

Gobbledybook says their service is better than Eat Your Books because you can add your own books to Gobbledybook rather than waiting for the service to do it, and they will “match up” data behind the scenes so that a failure to use a sufficiently specific term won’t bugger up your search results, a problem Ferroni says she’s had at EYB with things like searching for “soup” not picking up a “bisque”.

I haven’t played sufficiently with Eat Your Books a great deal yet, but haven’t found any problems. Adding just 24 of my books has given me 4800+ searchable recipes. Searching my books for “witlof” gives me 22 recipes, including chicory and witlof so it looks like someone’s doing some “matching up” there too.

I emailed to ask some questions and was really impressed by the substance and tone of their answers. I asked if I could import the few hundred books I had in my Library Thing and was advised that a data import is on the way, and that they’re linking with British suppliers and eventually Australian and New Zealand ones to expand the library. And already, somewhere in Canberra, is an indexer adding info from the most prominent Australian books (nah, not me, although I offered …) Their focus is on the last 15 years, but I hope eventually they’ll index older titles like the Time Life Good Cook series which I have so painstakingly accumulated.

I’m not so interested in the “community” parts of the sites, as I already have a food blog and a twitter problem, but there’s potential for it to really take off. Much as I love flipping through cookbooks, sometimes I’d rather just be able to find or remember what I’m looking for – so when there’s something new at the farmers’ market or a glut in the veggie garden, dinner need never be boring. Even if it’s zucchini again.


Updated:
disclosure! Eat Your Books has given me a free lifetime membership after reading this post. It didn’t cross my mind before writing, and I was going to pay up anyway, but as I don’t usually accept stuff I thought I should mention it.

On sneaky racism and “other culinary horrors”

I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.

The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.

For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.

There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)

The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:

“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.

She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:

“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”

Isn’t that creepy!

“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”

Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:

hoi-sin

What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129″ there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.

Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:

oyster

Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:

img_31451

If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.

Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:

“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”

“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”

(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)

I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?

She does provide some pointers, of course -

“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.

The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”

Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.

It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.

(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)

Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.

The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.

While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.

I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:

“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”

I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.

I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.

In which I go to Wheeo

Dinner outside

There’s something about the sound of that name “Wheeo”, doncha think? It came to mind today, watching my elder son hurtle down the slide at the waterpark – it’s a sound of exhilaration and anticipation, but there’s a delicious thrill of risk to it, too. At least the first time around, you don’t know how cold it’s going to be when all of a sudden you’re immersed.

It can be a little daunting when Twitter comes to life, but like splashing down on a hot day it’s relieving and exciting all at once. I first met Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir (and @tammois) when she’d come to Canberra for a conference related to her PhD (yeah, it’s about food). We’d planned to go out for a drink but the combination of my small children and her tight schedule made it too hard. Instead, she came to my house, the morning after the conference had finished.

We share a lot as it turns out. We are Serious Home Cooks, both completely obsessed with food and feeding people, and we both love reading and writing about food. We hit it off, and Tammi and her family recently invited us to spend New Year’s Eve at the country house of their friends Antonia and Mark, a couple of hours drive from here. Owen was in Melbourne with an old friend for NYE itself, but joined us after a couple of days.

Hillview

The house itself was beautiful, the only drawback the sincerely expressed and repeated warnings about brown snakes. I’m not too thingy about snakes as a rule, but that’s because I live in the suburbs and never see any. So the idea of my rather silly 18 kilo toddler being bitten in a place which is out of mobile range, has no landline and is a good hour’s drive away from a hospital made me a big angsty. Fortunately Snake Education 101 from the four larger children seemed effective. The one snake that was spotted (yep, a brown one) was terrified off by Tammi’s husband Stuart’s desperate desire to kill it, by his stashing of sharp threatening spades near the scene of the spotting and by his general air of manly readiness.

clothesline

For fear of brown snakes, no clothes were washed.

I mentioned that the house was beautiful, but it was also full of beautiful things – indigenous and contemporary art, wonderful books, rooms crammed with beautiful Turkish carpets, interesting found things, such as the beautiful bowl of nests which brought Gay Bilson to mind, and linen cupboards stuffed with super-soft old white damask sheets.

bedroom view

From the bedroom we stayed in.

We had a few friends around for a drink before Christmas and my friend Chris (an ex-chef) asked laughingly while she enjoyed a Rhubarb Fizz made by one of the other guests whether my friendships were self-selecting around food. I suppose it’s no stranger than others who share a common interest coming together; probably less so because food is so social. And while it’s true that most of my friends care about food and cooking, to most of them it’s not so deeply embedded as it is with Tammi and me. We could talk about food all day, interrupting that only to read about, make or eat food. And we both left Wheoo with new treasures jotted in our little notebooks – for me in particular, Tammi’s basil and garlic hollandaise which is so good that it has returned hollandaise to my inner list of Things Worth Eating.

The books I took for my holiday reading were Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, and Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. I didn’t open any of them, as it happened, although Stuart read some of the Olney. Tammi had brought her own stash of books, so I read Lauren Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and some of Barbara Santich’s Looking for Flavour instead. The owners of the house are also food nerds, and in addition to the supremely well-stocked kitchen, there was a bookcase of food and wine books. Whenever it wasn’t stuffed with food, the table looked like this:

I don’t always cook well with others (sounds like it should be on my school report), particularly in my own kitchen, but Tammi and I quickly settled into a rhythm of each preparing parts of the meal. The exception was my introduction to ravioli making, and there I was very much the student. In the week I’ve been home I’ve broken my pasta machine, bought a new one and read quite a bit of Marcella Hazan.

Despite the thousands of recipes in the house, mostly we both cook improvisationally. One of us would suggest a dish, the other come up with something sympatico to accompany it. Tammi’s described some of the yummies (with pictures) at On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily.

Here were some of the highlights that occurred before my poor little camera died:

Tammi's bread proving

Tammi embraced breadmaking at Wheeo. It meant we could stay in the house and not have to go anywhere and still eat proper bread. WIN

Really Very Large T-Bones

Pasture fed Columbooka T-Bones from my sister-in-law’s farm in Southern NSW. We shall not mention the little incident with the brazier. Stuart made a giant bowl of horseradish sauce so delicious we ate it all. That would have been at least half a cup each, but in our defence it was made with yoghurt rather than cream.

Stuffed tomatoes

Tammi and I share a predisposition to frugality and a hatred of stingyness. The tomatoes were stuffed with crumbs made from one of Tammi’s loaves, herbs from the garden, olive oil and about 18 cloves of minced garlic.

Spuds

We had no cream so Tammi infused some milk with herbs from the garden to make a delicious potato gratin to eat with the pork. Stuart’s home-cured olives were what really made it sing.

Prepared pork

I unrolled a rolled boned forequarter of Wessex Saddleback Pork from Mountain Creek Farm and found some nice things to go with it. I love fennel with pork, so made Owen pull over on the way back from picking him up to join us. If you are going to pick herbs from the roadside, there are a few things to keep in mind – the less traffic the better, wash the spiders off (there were two) and if you’re in an unfamiliar place, check the goddam garden first. There’s no point foraging if it’s there to harvest.

Pork Cooked

We cooked the pork on horseradish leaves from the garden, and they became so deliciously luscious what with the pork fat, lemon, fennel and wine that we ended up slicing them finely to eat with the pork. I brought some horseradish home and planted it, so hopefully there’ll be a lot more of this in the future.

Rhubarb Fizz

There were a great deal more veggies and salads that it may seem here, and considerably more wine, as it happened. This wasn’t wine, however, but the Rhubarb Fizz made by my friend Jem. It was supersweet, but a nip of gin balanced it up nicely.

It struck me thinking about it afterwards that Tammi and I cook together like musicians jamming – confident, mature, communicating with a glance, riffing off each other and then getting to feast too. Neither setting out to impress the other, but to make something that is impressive, something coherent, satisfying and enriching to the people we care about.

Since coming home I’ve finished the Julian Barnes book I took away and neglected (hmmm, in my best Marge Simpson voice. Despite long experience of sophisticated cooking he has remained a bloody kitchen pedant, and I’m no friend of them) and I’ve started the Olney (a proper book, with long complicated sentences).

My favourite food of all to make is a composed salad, a meal on a plate, heavy on the veg. It was the first food I made for Tammi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of food guided by experience and taste rather than recipes. It is the joy of food that is never the same twice, the ingredients, company, location, mood, season, changing but never losing the heart-joy of placing on the table something that you are hopeful – and confident – will be enjoyed. Richard Olney is speaking here on the subject of such salads, and their endless variation, but I hope that his words are as true of these friendships born in front of the computer screen and cemented at the table –

… One could go on forever, and, in practice, one does.
Richard Olney Simple French Food

Tammi

Tammi in the kitchen.

Emica’s Northern Christmas: a few of my favourite things

Although I am risking not being let back in the country, I have to admit (just quietly) that I do prefer the cold northern Christmas to the rather warmer celebrations in Aus. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family’s traditions, which have evolved to deal with the fact that it’s usually 39 degrees by 7am with an easterly blowing that could strip paint, but roast turkey and a steamed pud just don’t make sense at the edge of the desert. We cook everything the day before and serve a cold buffet of the glazed ham and turkey with lots of salads, so that the oven’s not adding to the oven-like temperature of the house already and, depending on whose house we’re at, we head to the beach for a Christmas morning post-stocking, pre-tree pressie swim and fruit salad. Come to think of it, we’ve made the salad selection “traditional” with some, like mum’s carrot, cashew and coriander salad only getting a run on that one day.

But Christmas is a car crash of northern hemispherical merry-making history, with the celebration of the birth of Christ piled on top of older Pagan habits, and the traditions make more sense on their home turf than transplanted Down Under. Herewith a few of my favourite northern Christmas things.

One of my totally favourite things about a London Christmas is the twinkly lights. People go mad for them and because it’s dark early, you get to appreciate their starry magic from, oh, about 3.30pm. There’s a bit of totally OTT flashing neon Santa-action, but mostly there seems to be some unwritten rule that you deliberately leave your front room curtains open to let passers by admire your tastefully twinkly Christmas tree which has been strategically placed in the front window (nb: I do live next to [not in!] super-chic Barnsbury. Might not be quite so tasteful on the local estates).

Another is Christmas wreaths. Oh how I love them! I have a real – yes real- holly wreath on my front door with berries and everything. I have had it up there since December 1; the earliest day I could get away with, but I’d already scoped the wreath situation the week previous and picked one up from the farmer’s market for a fiver. I L.O.V.E it. Wreathing it up seems to be a genuine tradition, with the vast majority of doors decked with trad ones- involving evergreen, holly berries, ribbons and cinnamon sticks- or silver sprayed modernist confections dusted with glitter.

In a symbiotic relationship with twinkly lights and wreath hanging, for the entire Advent season it becomes not just permissible but practically required to stroll and sticky beak into other people’s houses. Indeed, me and The Man went for a long walk this afternoon, making the most of freezing (it’s really properly freezing- we have icicles) but crisply clear day which offered prime noseying opportunities. And on each of my three London Christmases, we have had a post-lunch pre-pud walk, wrapped up and with a glass of something warming in hand. Last year I had to be prised away from the railings of one particularly fine Georgian townhouse, my nose pressed up against the window admiring their gold-and-red themed tree and Christmas table set in the window, silverware and crystal glasses glinting, waiting either for the residents to return for lunch or for the stylists from Vogue Entertaining to turn up.

doors

But my favourite thing is the food. For my first Christmas here, my parents and sister visited and mum did a proper roast turkey with goose fat roast spuds and I think little chipolatas. I did the brussels sprouts (having only just found out they’re traditional) and we made cranberry sauce because we’d never been able to get fresh cranberries before. Last weekend I made Nigella’s apple and cranberry chutney; almost equal parts cranberry and apple, those little red sour bombs are so amazing, like northern lillipillies! A toast to that fine meal was made and mum cried and took pictures because it looked so darn picturesque and story book, all of us gathered round a laden table and it so dark and cold outside.

This year it’s just me and The Man, so I’m not doing a whole turkey, which I have in the past and which cause a bit of, um, blue language on the day of the birth of Our Lord because of my dodgy, diddly little oven. Turned out great though, and I even made the gravy to go with it while trying to make sure the visiting vegetarians had enough to eat. This year I’m doing a stuffed, rolled turkey breast from the posh butchers. I’m also doing hot glazed ham. I know! Hot ham, who would of thought eh? Sprouts are a given because a) they’re easy but especially b) I love them.

Another favourite thing is the big shut down. We were caught out for our first Christmas, never expecting all public transport to shut down on Christmas day and for much of Boxing Day as well. Yes, a darn nuisance if you don’t know and also a cash cow for all the non-Christian mini cab drivers, but it does mean you actually can’t go anywhere. Gosh, such a relief. Last year I spent all day in front of the fire, with snack breaks, reading my new present – Nigella’s Christmas. This is apropos of telling you that this year I will be experimenting with red cabbage from her Christmas lunch menu. I’ve never done it before, but I reackon it’s time to give it a whirl. Also, at a time of year when all I do is leak money, cabbage is so good and yet so cheap.

So, to the finale: sweet treats and pudding. I have just spent more than is wise on The Best Christmas cake but it’s The Best so what can I do? I’ve also just swooped on Carluccio’s for soft Italian almond biscuits, as well as smallgoods for The Man. I’m slightly nervous to admit this and incur the wrath of Dr Sister Outlaw following her sterling instructions on Christmas puddings, but this year it’ll be bought. It’ll be a posh one, but it’s still bought. And bought custard. I don’t think Christmas is the time for a novice custard maker to start meddling with curdled eggs.

But most of all, it’ll be eaten piping hot, after a brisk, crisp walk to make a corner of room in our overstuffed bellies for yet more wintery, festive, seasonal goodies. Merry Christmas.

xmas lunch

Hello, my name’s Zoe and I collect cookbooks.

I used to buy cookbooks like other people once, but I always seemed to like it a little bit more than most. One day Owen turned around and said “It’s a collection, you know that?“. I said “You say that like it’s a bad thing …” and I realised that I had Crossed A Line. I’m not quite at the point where I could appear on the ABC’s Collectors or anything, although my friend Nigel is the proud proprietor of bakelite fingernail polisher Mystery Object™, and hundreds of melamine cups and saucers and I may have to seek his expert guidance on the subject.

Signs you may have a problem: one day’s purchases at the Lifeline Bookfair.

I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have happened anyway, but in part I blame Neil of At My Table. He posted in May 2008 on his satisfaction at completing his set of the Time Life series “The Good Cook: Techniques and Recipes”.

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Marmalade Today, Jam Tomorrow

I find that after a piece of fruit, some muesli and yoghurt and a milky coffee, I don’t have the appetite for toast at breakfast anymore. But today I made myself a mid-morning snack of toast with mandarin marmalade accompanied by a cup of black lapsang souchong tea. Half the pleasure came from the fact that I’d made the marmalade myself.

+ tea

I’m not much of a jam maker: it’s probably anxiety associated with figuring out when ‘setting’ stage has been reached, and the fiddliness of sterilising lots of jars. One solution to the jar issue would be to make smaller batches, but this seems a bit counterintuitive. I tend to associate making jam with making lots of jam. It’s partly because, as Gay Bilson has pointed out, we tend to make the error of thinking in terms of the fruit, when we should be thinking in terms of the fruit and sugar combined. It’s also about seeing preserving as a way of dealing with gluts and windfalls: you know, that box you got from the market near closing time. Or we make lots of jam because we want to move large amounts of it at the school fete.

Anyhow, the recipe, which is disarmingly simple, is below, but it got me thinking about the history of marmalade, and food history is always insightful, not least because it puts some of our current concerns about globalisation into some sort of perspective.

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