12 May, 2009

food, food EVERYWHERE

My God, I've been home from Hereford for a week and somehow the days have gone by without properly describing the brilliance of our days. I promise to do it all justice. But what on earth has been happening here that has distracted me?

Let's see, there was a long-awaited tennis game with John, oh joy! His ankle is truly on the mend, but I'm not pushing it, so we played it safe, so to speak, and just enjoyed the gorgeous but slightly shabby environs of Ravenscourt Park. And then after school one day last week came the adventure of the exploding Avery school backpack on Thursday: truly the thing exploded, sending showers of her belongings all over school, so we piled into the car with Emily and headed to Cath Kidston, an English institution if you have a young girl and any incidental interest in roses, polka dots, charming summer prints, you name it for perfect girly gifts, and, as it turns out, schoolbags. Riding there in the Mini with the top down, we all tried to pretend the air was not simply swirling with pollen: itching eyes, scratchy throat, crazed sneezing. But you can't NOT put the top down! Successful purchases including several birthday party needs, a lovely errand to Chiswick.

From there we all repaired to the school swimming pool to work off the spring's lethargy (and maybe a couple of pounds along the way) enforced by the weather and by John's puny ankle. But my goodness, the chlorine. I raced John in the crawl, Emily ("I need two seconds head start!" she screams, whereupon she wins by... two seconds), then we adults callously leave the girls on their own (twelve years old, the magic number!) and head home to get ready for pierrade, our diner de choix these days, especially when one's in need of a protein fix. What a joy to sit out in the garden (albeit joined by Avery bundled in a down jacket, pashmina wound round her hair, leg warmers: she only later confessed that she ate dinner in her wet bathing suit, under all these layers, yuck). I just adore our new (well, not really) garden furniture, the funky little plant that decorates the table, the wild birdsong, the candles and clinking of silver on china.

Next morning I succumbed to a long-overdue coffee with Emily's mother. Will there ever be a coffee where we don't talk over each other, saying, "I had one more thing I absolutely HAD to say, so don't interrupt!", never getting through everything no matter how long we spend catching up. There is a never-ending list of issues to get through: our daughters, my weekend away, her plans for attending a bittersweet christening on the weekend, Fred's GCSE preparations, cooking, eating, reading... and of course, Lost Property. I had to beg a ride from her, in fact, to get to my duties at said LP on time. That chilled basement room, the languid and careless gorgeous schoolgirls having lost everything under the SUN, getting to meet the dining room genius, Mr. V., who was most pleased to hear that Avery enjoys the food. "I conducted a survey," he said, "and the little ones just ask for more pizza and more pasta. The older they get, the more their palates enjoy, say, the fish, the pesto, the risotto..." I left school after giving the secretary one HUGE bag, left in LP, full of the entire academic career of one particular girl. The secretary said, "I think she's out sick today," and all I could think was, "I bet she is, having left all this SOMEWHERE."

Friday we worked, worked, worked, trying to reduce the pile of paperwork on our desks: horrid taxes, play tickets, school forms, birthday cards to send, that chicken-in-lettuce recipe I thought I'd make that I now realize Avery would NEVER eat... and then a dinner out, for heaven's sake. When was the last time? We succumbed to that crazy London phenomenon, Yo! Sushi, in the Westfield massive shopping centre, and do you know what (lowers voice to a whisper)? It was fabulous. Go for the most expensive thing, a five-pound plate of six slices of sashimi: two salmon in dill, two salmon in black mustard seed and poppy, and two yellowtail tuna in coriander. Superb! We had to be rolled home, we ate so much sushi. A delight, especially in a world whose out-of-home dinner offerings seem to get less and less 1) desirable and 2) affordable. I just don't want, anymore, to pay anyone to feed me something I could conceivably make at home. But sushi? Bring it on.

On Saturday Avery returned from her sleepover with Emily and simply collapsed in exhaustion until it was time for her friend's Lillie's birthday party, a trip to see "The 39 Steps," which sounded by all accounts to be brilliant. We adults spent the afternoon at "State of Play," a film version of the incomparable BBC miniseries of several years ago. I know, I know, a two-hour film can never approach the complexity of the series, but it's a cracking story, well-acted and just scary enough for me: loads of issues to think about afterward like the death of print media, the conflict between the old-fashioned reporter and the whippersnapper blog world, the corruption of the good old Military-Industrial Complex (always good for a laugh). Go see it, it's worth the effort.

Then, we come to the FOOD. Sunday I had tickets to the overwhelming Real Food Festival at Earl's Court. So many times I have gone all on my own to food shows and festivals, and sure, it's fun enough: how could it not be? A chance to stroll from stand to stand, purveyor and specialist makers everywhere you look, endless variety. But how much more fun to go with someone? John was kind and succumbed, and I do think he had a good time. How many sausage samples can any one man eat? Then you step up to a cheese maker and think you'll get one little sliver, but NO, the man wants you to taste the entire range, from young and creamy to aged and smelly. Bring it on!

And then there's the healthy hibiscus beverage, guaranteed to prevent all bad things and enhance all good, and the vegan apple crumble, and the all-fruit sugar substitute Sweet Freedom (an apple and banana cake tomorrow will be the proof or death of THAT impulse purchase). There was the stall with many fishy rillettes, La Paimpolaise (we succumbed to sea bass, razor clam and red mullet, gloriously fishy and exotic), the chorizo at Suffolk Salami , the plump and succulent Dorset oysters at Rossmore Oysters, the piri-piri oil at Chilli Pepper Pete that forms the backbone of ALL my salad dressings... Lastly, I may tell you, we sampled EVERY sausage that popped up in front of us (a tough job, but someone's got to... well, you know). And hands-down, best in show, Simply Sausages, offering a juicy but not fatty pork sausage studded with fresh rosemary and fennel seed. Quite perfect for:

Sausage, Rocket, Porcini Pizza with Piri-Piri Oil and Mozzarella
(serves at least four generously, with three large pizzas)

800 grams strong bread flour
1/2 tbsp each dried thyme, dried basil
pinch salt
2 packets dried yeast
500 ml tepid water
1 tbsp milk
1 tbsp olive oil
1 extra tbsp olive oil

tomato sauce:
2 tbsps olive oil
1 large can whole Italian plum peeled tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps Italian seasoning
handful whole basil leaves

1 packet Simply Sausages
1 70-gram bag rocket leaves
1 red onion, sliced thin
500 grams pizza mozzarella (less liquid than ordinary), shredded
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
fresh cherry tomatoes, halved
Piri-piri oil to drizzle
1/2 cup fresh grated parmesan to scatter over top

This is something to make when you have a fair amount of time, to allow for the dough to rise, and a fair amount of energy, to make the sauce and prepare the toppings. The results will make you throw away your order-out-pizza menus and will leave you wanting to make it all over again, the next night.

For the dough, mix all the dry ingredients well with a fork, in a large bowl. Mix all the wet ingredients in a measuring cup and pour slowly over the flour mixture, stirring with a fork just to absorb, then get your (clean) hands in there and knead the dough until nice and soft, slightly sticky. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky. When it's nice and soft and not sticking to the bowl, take the dough out, oil the inside of the bowl with olive oil, roll the dough around to coat it too, and leave in a warm place till doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. Punch down, knead a bit, then leave to rise one more time. This is a very flexible process: the dough can rise to any amount over almost any period of time and still be punched down.

Separate the dough into three chunks and roll out with a rolling pin and plenty of flour shaken about to keep it from sticking to the rolling surfaces. Roll each chunk out to the size of your pizza stone, tin or cookie sheet, stretch it out to cover the surface and cover with clingfilm until ready to bake.

Place the porcini mushrooms in a dish and cover with boiling water, stirring a bit and letting them sit for at least 20 minutes, to rehydrate. Save the water when you're finished because it makes a cracking addition to couscous, risotto, stock, pasta sauce, you name it.

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic gently, but don't brown. Whizz the tomatoes in a food processor till smooth, then add to the garlic. Sprinkle with the Italian seasoning and simmer for about 1/2 hour or until nicely reduced and slightly thickened. Add basil leaves and simmer until wilted.

For the toppings, use your imagination! You can either saute the sausages till cooked through and slice, or liberate them from their skins and saute as sausagemeat. Spoon sauce over the crust, scatter with toppings as you like, and bake in a VERY hot oven (450 F, 225 C) for perhaps 10 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned and crisp.



You know what else is amazing, that I made last night to go with a huge and cheesy dish of lasagna: just the dough itself brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic powder and dried parsley, and baked. I sliced it like pizza, and the platter never even made it to the table: we and our friends at it ALL standing up around the stove, as I pulled the lasagna from the oven. Quite perfect, and practically free. Very credit- and otherwise-crunchy!

Well, let's see, this week began with parent-teacher conferences last night (the occasion calling for Avery's best friend and her family to come over afterward for the aforementioned lasagna feast). May I kvell? Avery is just blossoming. Every teacher described her as imaginative and a pleasure to teach, and "a left-field thinker," which sounds strangely sporty for a girl who is as ball-challenged as our daughter is. No worries at all. We are simply bursting with pride for her. And she's HAPPY. Doesn't get any better than that.

We all sat around slightly punchy with relief at the conferences being over, devouring lasagna (a leftover portion of cheesy spinach casserole makes a very nice addition, between the pasta layers), everyone talking over everyone as we always do. Poor Fred's exams are coming up this week, Georgia and Avery discussed their Sunday ride at the stable (alone in the park on two canters, very cool), we adults wrangled over films we have seen, liked, not liked, want to see. All too soon it was bedtime for children...

Well, in light of all these real-life adventures, it's hard even to remember the wild, gluttonous, hilarious, brilliant weekend in Hereford with my foodie friends. But it happened. I must tell you that there is nothing more fun, for me, than being surrounded by people who just want to talk food, shop for food, cook together, talk about cooking. As the late, great food writer Laurie Colwin said, "There is nothing nicer than eating, unless it's talking about eating. The best possible thing is talking about eating, while eating with friends." And that is precisely what we did.

Saturday we trundled off in two cars to nearby Ludlow, truly the food capital of whatever part of England we were in (not driving, I paid NO attention whatever to directions, a blessing really). No fewer than six independent butchers in the tiny little place! We dispatched Susan to AH Griffiths to haggle for lamb mince and a beef roast, and then Katie and I fell in love (I know, scary) with a pork roast of unbelievable succulence... how much meat could any 10 food writers consume? Plenty, it turned out.

Not being a sweet eater, I didn't pay attention to the many bakers, but Caro patronized De Grey's for an incomparably tasty apple cinnamon cake), Deli on the Square for several delicacies: Adam's Patchwork Pate, Welsh Dragon-style with venison and chilli, I bought some superb Moroccan black oil-cured olives. I picked up a quantity of new season asparagus at The Fruit Basket (not knowing at the time how much our own asparagus patch would yield), then we repaired to the Charlton Arms for a spot of lunch overlooking the river and ancient buildings. We ate and ate! Whole trout, pollock with a chilli sauce went down best. I knew we had crossed some crazy-foodie line when Adam let, nay encouraged, all of us at the table to dip a finger into the salad dressing on his plate to try to identify one last ingredient! We are a breed apart.

Finally home to begin the evening meal: Katie and I picked purple sage for our dear pork roast and he went into the slow oven with a good sprinkling of Maldon salt and a good twist of black pepper. The crackling was quite finely scored and it proved INSANELY good. Jenny picked wild garlic by the road outside the house and that started out mashed potatoes down a road that was never intended for them but was quite brilliant, and so inventive:

Colcannon with Fresh Spring Onions, Spring Greens and Wild Garlic
(serves 10)

5 lbs potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
hot cream and butter to the consistency you like: around 2 cups
2 large handfuls spring greens, wilted in boiling water
handful wild garlic, both leaves and flowers chopped

Boil the potatoes till soft but not mushy. Drain potatoes, and mash with milk and butter mixture, then add greens and wild garlic and stir till well mixed.



That's what the weekend was all about: spontaneity, all-hands-on-deck, inventiveness. No ego! Just good fun. And even a spot of work: I had a great time over cocktails sitting with Jenny outside the kitchen, having her go over my chapter, giving me her wise and generous suggestions. Radio? Tape my reading in MP3 format and send it out? How did Garrison Keillor get started anyway?

Dinner was uproarious, very LATE, sinfully rich and delicious. And at the end of it, we presented Rosie, our beautiful and tireless leader, with a turquoise necklace, and one of Pauline's side-splitting gems:

Badger Stew, by Pauline Beaumont

She had always hated waste
So made a verdant, pungent paste
from tons of foraged wild garlic
(which sadly made the family sick)

She moved to dead things squashed quite flat
rabbit, stoat or grouse
The collection expanded with rats and a cat
(There started a terrible smell in the house)

Alas, she progressed from road kill
not satisfied with hedgehogs now.
She started to pick off lambs from the hill
and last night she came home with a cow.

Driving along a country lane
her shovel always ready
some thought she looked a touch insane
kalashnikov held steady

She gave her visitors badger stew
with lamb kidneys a la Hungarian
the lot of them spent the whole night in the loo
and have now all turned full vegetarian


Sunday we all weighed in again with various concoctions: Sam's and my lamb burgers with spring onions he harvested from the garden (Rosie: "You're going on about that spring onion as if you gave BIRTH to it!"), mint from the garden and the ras el hanout seasoning I brought from London. Divine, on the barbecue, alongside an aubergine marinated in olive oil. Sam made caramelized red onions with balsamic vinegar and sugar, I roasted whole heads of garlic with olive oil and rosemary from the garden, and Pauline casually whipped up the most delicious and simple tatziki: cucumber, mint and yogurt, perfect with the lamb burgers.

We carried all this out to the picnic table behind the little house and feasted in the blinking, windy blue sunshine, ending finally with Sam's:

The Ultimate Chocolate Cake

This recipe is made from a combination of two chocolate cake recipes. The sponge is adapted from Angela Nilsen’s ‘Ultimate Chocolate Cake’ recipe and the ganache from Orlando Murrin’s ‘Celebration Chocolate Cake’ recipe.

For The Sponge
200g good quality dark chocolate, about 70% cocoa solids
200g unsalted butter, cut in pieces
1 tbsp instant coffee granules
85g self-raising flour
85g plain flour
1⁄4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g light muscovado sugar
200g golden caster sugar (I used 180g Golden Caster Sugar and 20g White Caster Sugar)
25g cocoa powder
3 medium eggs
5 tbsp/75ml buttermilk

N.B. If you wish to make a lighter sponge only use 100g of the chocolate. However, it is sweeter.

For The Ganache
220g dark chocolate, about 70% solids, chopped
240 ml double cream
2 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temp

To Decorate
3 tbsp crystallised violet petals


I can assure you that this is indeed the Ultimate Chocolate Cake. I don't even LIKE chocolate. But it is dense, yet not heavy, intense yet not cloying. The idea that a young man like Sam could turn this out, while teaching young boys to cook by day and being a strong blond ladykiller by... well, late afternoon, as I don't know how he spends his nights... gives one hope for the younger generation. But even better than the cake was his forging of a relationship between me and the freezer, whose door simply would NOT open for me, but would for him. "Now, freezer," he would say, bending his tall frame down to the handle, "I know Kristen doesn't understand that she needs to ask nicely, but she's really a good person underneath..." but no, it took his magic touch to open the door.

Thank you, everyone in the "Gathering of Nuts in May," for an unforgettable time, lifelong friendships strengthened, the laughter there to shore us up, if life gets heavy. Here's to the NEXT reunion!


Foxi Rosie said...

Perfect... one small correction, Sam made the lovely red onion relish.

Kristen In London said...

I stand corrected!