You’re going to disagree with some of these. That’s fine. The joy of cooking is that you do things differently to the way I’d do them, and the results will be equally delicious. I might think that the way you throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it’s done is a bit silly, but hey, if your spaghetti is al dente, then I won’t complain.
A busy day in the kitchen yesterday. A fresh loaf, a blueberry cake, and hell, I’m in the kitchen anyway, I might as well go the whole hog and make a fish pie.
This is more or less Nigel Slater’s famous recipe, and I’ve been making it for long enough that I can quote it from memory. It’s a messy job, there’s no doubt about it, but I’ve tweaked it enough that it’s reasonably straightforward. Even if it wasn’t, fish pie would be worth the fuss.
I start with about half a pound of fish in my big saute pan. Enough milk to cover goes in, with a bay leaf if you’ve got one and some peppercorns. Bring it to a simmer, and cook until the fish is about done. Should take about ten minutes. While that’s bubbling, chop a couple of big leeks and some mushrooms (enough to give you a couple of big handfuls of dice) and a stick of celery. I also put four fist sized potatoes in the steamer to cook, as they are, in their skins.
Fish done. Fish comes out of pan, and put somewhere to stay warm. If you’re a big ole cheaty-head like me, you’ve used a fish pie mix that’s skinless, boneless and already chunked up. If not, the skin and bones will come away easily from the cooked fish, which you should keep in chunky pieces. No mince here. Pour the fishy milk into a jug through a strainer. Keep this with the fish.
Wipe out the pan. Back on the heat with a little oil and butter, and cook the leeks and celery over a lowish heat with the lid on until the leeks are soft and bright green. Whip those out, reheat the pan and do the mushrooms, letting them soak up the oil and butter. You can do these in two pans if you like, but do them separately to stop the mushrooms going wet and sloppy, rather than flavoursome and slightly caramelised.
Once the mushrooms are nice and brown, add the leeks back in, and sprinkle over a couple of tablespoons of flour. Let this cook for a minute of so until you can’t smell the flour any more, then throw in the milk. Let this bubble until the sauce you suddenly have in the pan thickens a bit to a nice creamy texture. A big spoonful of creme fraiche, lots of salt and pepper, then stir the fish back in. If you fancy chucking in any fresh herbs, flat leaf parsley, maybe some celery leaves, hell, even basil, now’s the time. Give this another five minute love in. The sauce should be creamy and rich, not at all runny or sloppy.
While that’s doing, check your spuds. They should be done. Do what you have to do to turn them into mash. I’m not going to tell you how to do it. You’re a grown up. Be comfortable with your mash-making technique.
Pile the mixture into a baking dish. Now the spuds. I use a ricer, and squish cooked unpeeled potato straight on top. Saves on peeling, and gives a nice light result. Then cheese. People say you shouldn’t put cheese on a fish pie. Screw them. I like cheese. I used a nice strong Wyke Farm cheddar with horseradish for a little doink of heat. If you’re going to be all huffy about it, just dot some butter over your mash.
Hot oven (about 200C, Gas 6) for 15 minutes or until there are nice brown toasty peaks on your mash.
Serve to someone you love (you’re not gonna go to all that effort for someone you don’t at least fancy) with some peas and a little soft music.
Worry about the washing up later.
One can not reflect in streaming water. Only those who know internal peace can give it to others.
There are several reasons why I choose to allow my Sunday posts to be quiet and reflective. The main reason, I think, is that I am in a quiet and reflective place at this time of the week.
All is still here. A cup of tea, steaming faintly. An empty plate, toast crumbs stippling the surface. Upstairs, the sounds of my wife preparing for the day. The light outside is cool. The sky seems a flat, gray bowl, but if I look carefully, I can see the faint colour changes of the cloud cover, slightly deeper hues shading away from the monochrome into blue. A bird flits from branch to branch on a tree outside, as busy as I am still.
For a moment, I let the day sink in, and distraction slip away.
“Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart and the senses.”
Love is not supposed to be easy. It’s not a universal cure-all, a panacea for the ages. Love will not give you a happy ending. Love does not mean that everything is going to be all right.
At the same time, love is not a disease, an infection, a shot through the heart. We could say it’s a form of madness, a consensual delusion. But if love is not returned, or rejected, or ignored, then the pain is very real, and as sharp and deadly as any blade.
It is impossible to write dispassionately about love – which is kind of the point. We all need companionship, the feeling that we are valued and treasured for the things that we are. We all need comfort and passion, support and shelter, finding in another person those things that we lack, or that we need.
Love is, simply put, the moment when you find someone and know, without doubt or equivocation, that you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with them. Through hardship and heartbreak, through joy and delight, in sunshine and rain. If you can, then love has served its purpose. If you can’t, then there can only be pain. That primal, simple truth has been subsumed in a backwash of sentiment and retail opportunities, and it simply isn’t needed. If you love someone, and they love you back, then they don’t need a token of your appreciation once a year. They know.
But it’s always worth telling them, just to be certain.
So this pumpkin’s been in the food cupboard, getting in the way. It’s been there for a while. At least since before Christmas. I have a nasty feeling it was snagged as a post-Halloween bargain. Which makes the darn thing at least three months old. It’s not soft or sagging, but it’s also significantly past the seriously over-zealous use-by date on the sticker on the side of the thing. The sticker telling me it’s a pumpkin as opposed to, I dunno, a mutant carrot or a novelty DVD player. Nonetheless, there it sits, accusingly in the food cupboard, daring me to make use of it.
It goes in the oven for an hour, after I chop it in half longitudinally, scoop out all the seeds and fibres, glug in some olive oil and, as a last thought, a head of garlic split into cloves and split evenly over the two halves. Once the flesh offers no resistance to the point of a knife, I set it aside and let it cool, while I cook off a couple of big shallots in a big pan. The spongy pumpkin soaks up all the garlic-scented oil. I pop the garlic out of it’s skin, and squish it into a rough pulp with my fingers.
When it’s cool enough to handle, I turn the pumpkin halves inside out, whch is the quickest way of getting the flesh away from the skin. A quick chop, then the pumpkin and garlic join the shallots in the hot pan.
It needs stock, and as I can’t be arsed to defrost any from the freezer, I make do with one of those strange gelatinous things that an angry TV chef endorses. It’s ok, but I know that the soup won’t need any extra salt. 500mls, a Pyrex jug full of stock go into the pan. After a five minute bubble, I chuck in a couple of tablespoons of a curry paste that’s kicking around in the fridge, and half a can of coconut milk. Then it bubbles gently for half an hour.
When we’re ready for it, I blitz the soup with my trusty blending wand until it’s silky smooth and unctuous. It’s sweet, warmingly spicy and moreish. We eat it with a toasted muffin apiece, and some nutty sheep’s cheese grated over. We like Issou D’Iraty, but most Dutch cheeses will do nicely. Nothing too cheddary with this one. It needs sweet mildness.
A pumpkin the size of a volleyball gave us enough soup for a light Sunday supper, with enough left for TLC’s tea tomorrow. It was nice to get there, even if it took a while.
I grew up in libraries. This may seem a strange statement from the rakish man-about-town that you all know and tolerate, but it’s true. I was a bookish child. The mobile library that called once a fortnight to the small Cambridgeshire village where I spent my formative years was both fuel and engine to my imagination. Later, a long low building in Woodford was almost a second home – a refuge, a place of discovery and contemplation, a place where I was free to simply be a reader and writer. I have held a library card as soon as I was able. I hold one now. It gets heavy use.
I don’t really think I need to tell you what I think of the ConDem’s plans to eviscerate our library service. A better writer than I has beaten me to it anyway. Philip Pullman gave a speech last month that tells the sorry tale truthfully, with passion and anger. The whole thing is here, and I agree with every word.
Mr Pullman’s right to be furious. My home county, Berkshire, seems to have found a way not to cull their libraries. His home and my neighbour, Oxfordshire, isn’t so lucky. The number of libraries in an area that houses one of the great seats of learning on the planet is set to be halved. In Essex, one of the libraries for the chop is Woodford, my old refuge, my second home, the place where I discovered Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Stephen King, Joseph Heller, John Irving, John Wyndham, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker.
The thought that kids are going to grow up in this country without the opportunity to learn, discover and grow that I had sickens and scares me in equal measure. Libraries are community spaces, somewhere safe for mums to bring their kids for story time, their internet connections vital lifelines for the 27% of British citizens that still don’t have a hookup to the web at home. Free access to news, information and education is a central tent pole of civilisation. Hacking away at it is the act of a barbarian.
Tomorrow is Save Our Libraries Day. Actions will be going on up and down the country. It’s a chance to show your local bookhouse some love. Go and join if you don’t have a card. Get something to read out if you do. Get lots out. Snag some DVDs or some music. Maybe a graphic novel or two. Use up that allowance. That’s what it’s there for.
I want to be clear on my feelings. Libraries are a light in the soul of a community, and snuffing that light is not just small-minded, short-term penny pinching. It wounds us all in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to feel.
(The excellent WW1 remix poster I’ve used as illustration is part of a set by Phil Bradley, that he put together to help publicise the issue. They’re all great, and you can check them out on Flickr here).
I have no explanation for the fact that I have started baking cakes, other than the fact that I like baking, and I fancied a challenge that moved me away from bread. It’s very much a weekend thing, and fills me with a certain pride to be able to offer tea and homemade cake to TLC in the afternoon.
It also appeals to my economical nature. I can use ingredients that would otherwise be binned. Old, hard lemons and limes left over from Christmas are no good in your G&T. But they still have plenty of juice and useful zest for a lemon lime syrup cake.
The cake I’m going to tell you about came about because I had made a pot of coffee that we didn’t really drink. I fancied a coffee and walnut cake. But most of the recipes out there seemed to be as much about the filling and frosting as the cake. That seemed like a shame.
So, with guidance from this source, I struck out on my own. Is it any good. Well, let’s put it like this. There was more cake than the photo above when I put it away last night, so someone likes it…
Nutty Coffee Cake
Preheat your oven to 180C/Gas5, and grease a springform baking tin. Springform’s great. I love the solidity of unclamping your cake when it’s done. You might want to put some baking parchment in the bottom too. If you’re really flash, you can make a cartouche.
Chop some nuts. About 75g. I like almonds and pistachios, largely because that’s what I had at the time. Macadamias and pecans would be good too. The almonds might need toasting, if they’re blanched. Give ’em five minutes in a hot dry pan, and watch ’em. They burn in a second if you’re not careful. They just need to be golden.
Get a big bowl. Your biggest. Into it goes 175g of butter, 100g of caster sugar and 100g of brown sugar. Mash ’em together until they turn into a light, fluffy mousse-type thing. I started trying to use a fork and whisk for this, then remembered we own one of those food mixers with the interlocking whisks. Brilliant. Job done in moments.
Using your magic whippy machine, beat two eggs into the mixture. Now it looks like cake batter. Then add 100mls of hot coffee. That’s about two espressos. Now it looks like something that came out of a drain.
Now put in 200g of self-raising flour, and beat until it looks like a batter again. Throw in all but a palmful of the nuts, and beat again. Lot of beating going on. Baking is violent.
Now the whole gloopy mess goes into your baking tin, and into the oven. Give it 25 minutes, then poke it with a skewer or toothpick. You’re not taunting it, you’re seeing if it’s cooked through. If your implement of torture comes out clean, you’re done.
It’s fine like that, but this is Sunday, so make some damn effort. Throw together an icing.
200g of icing sugar in yet another bowl (your kitchen should look like a dirty bowl store by now). Add 3 tablespoons of coffee to that, then enough boiling water to make a runny icing. Think the sort of thing that goes on a doughnut. If you have lemon zest, half a teaspoon would be good here. Drizzle your icing over the top of the warm cake. It’s gonna go everywhere, so don’t try and be fancy. Scatter the nuts you held back from earlier (snicker) over the top. Let it cool a little more. Just a bit. Just to torture yourself.
Serve with fresh coffee, or if you’re a total heathen like me, the remains of the morning’s pot reheated with some milk. Sorry about that. Waste not want not.
Cookery shows are entertainment gussied up as having some educational value – which for the most part they do not have. Important steps in the preparation of a delicious meal are either skipped, glossed over or mangled. I speak from bitter experience. There’ve been too many times when I’ve served TLC something barely edible that I’ve taken from a cooking sketch. The expensive hardbacked books that these shows are designed to hawk have the same problem. As Nigel Slater says, recipes don’t take your kitchen into account. Your oven might be calibrated differently. You might not have been able to get hold of all of the ingredients. The more precise the recipe, the greater the chance that it’s going to go wrong somewhere down the line. If you’re trying something from Heston Blumenthal, you’re SOL unless you’ve got a laboratory and a tame hunchback to hand.
A real annoyance is the moment when, when in the interests of entertainment, a cook will take a stone classic and needlessly muck about with it. TLC doesn’t cook much, but her specialties have a purity and forthrightness of purpose that shines through. When a TV chef starts throwing bacon, double cream and breadcrumbs into a mac and cheese, her disdain is palpable. She’s right, of course. There’s no need for it. Better to teach the viewers how to make food properly. Here’s TLC’s tip for perfect mac: “When in doubt – MORE CHEESE.”
Frankly, a philosophy to live by.
You can get valuable tips and tricks out of cookery shows, though, if you’re prepared to watch out for the telling details. The way a TV cook handles a knife, for example. Compare the cack-handed way Nigella chops an onion to the way Gordon Ramsay renders it down to fine dice in instants. Watch the pro chefs at work, and you get some inkling of the short cuts they use to make their lives simpler.
I always get something useful out of Jamie Oliver. He grew up in a professional kitchen, cooking for punters. And it really shows. He’s a natural around a rolling pin. I’m embarrased to say that it was Jamie that showed me the right way to crush a clove of garlic (twat it with the flat of a big knife, while still in it’s skin. Peeled and chopped in one easy move, without the un-necessary investment in presses, rollers or those funny neoprene sleeves. Yes, ok, you have to pick the garlic out of the skin and maybe chop it about a little more. If you have a problem with touching garlic, then maybe you shouldn’t be using it.) Watching him and others like him at work has moulded the way I operate in a kitchen environment, taught me the importance of sharp knives, solid implements and a worktop that can take a beating.
Every so often the shows will come up with a recipe that you just know is going to hit big. in that case, it’s going to be everywhere. Both Nigel Slater and new girl on the block Lorraine Pascale (the perpetrator of the criminal mac and cheese) have featured a no-knead quick soda bread made without yeast. It’s the reappearance of a great idea (it’s in Mrs Beeton, donchaknow), and means you have a warm loaf on the table 40 minutes after putting flour in a bowl. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism. In the culinary world, as in fashion, ideas are there to be taken and tweaked. But this one is going to run. Betcha the Hairy Bikers grab it next.
In fact, sod it, here’s my take on it.
Rob’s Sody Bread
Half and half measures of strong wholemeal and plain flour to make up 500g or 18oz go in a bowl.
Throw in a teaspoon of sea salt, another of sugar, the browner the better, and one more of bicarb of soda, and mix the dry ingredients together.
Throw in 350ml or 12 fl oz buttermilk, and scoosh it into a soft dough. Don’t got buttermilk? Add a tablespoon of lemon juice to ordinary milk before it goes in, and leave for five minutes. Now you got buttermilk.
Tip the dough onto a floured surface, and shape it into a ball. It’ll be sticky. Flour your hands too.
Score the top in a cross with a knife. Go deep. Imagine your enemies while you’re doing it.
Place your slashed dough on a baking tray, then into a hot oven 200C/400F/Gas6 on the top shelf. Give it half an hour.
When it’s nice and brown and risen and filling the kitchen with that bread smell, you know the one, the one they use in supermarkets only this is real, this is YOU making that smell you delicious creature, take the bread out and let it cool slightly, before rending it asunder and using it to scoop up the juices of the casserole I didn’t tell you how to make. It’ll last a day or so, so you have my permission to be greedy and wolf the lot in one go. You’re worth it.
Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way before I start. Last week’s Friday Play on Radio Four was directed and based on early childhood experiences by Christiana Ebohon, who’s an old college friend of mine. She let me know about it in her Christmas card to X&HTowers. It’s almost certain that if she hadn’t told me it was on, I wouldn’t have tuned in. I barely listen to radio any more, least of all drama.
That, it would appear, is my loss, because if Ob’owa is any indicator of quality, there’s a lot of good work simply flying under my radar.
Ob’owa tells the story of Francesca and her younger brother Joseph. We first meet them in Peckham, sometime in the 70’s. They’re good kids, smart, funny, obsessed with the Bay City Rollers. They live with their mum, a divorcee. Dad still has visitation rights, which he uses to kidnap the two kids, whisking them off to Nigeria to live with his family. Their grandfather, his three wives, and their many children.
Ob’owa works on many levels. It’s a story about belonging, home and family. But it’s also a fish-out-of-water tale. Francesca and Joseph struggle to cope in a world where if you want meat for dinner, you have to go out in the yard and kill something. The wives react in horror when Joseph tries to help in the kitchen (“women’s work!”). School is tough, and worst of all there’s no telly.
The story could be unrelentingly grim. There are scenes of spousal abuse, musings on racism on both sides of the fence (ob’owa means “white”, a term that is used to taunt the two English kids both in the playground and the family compound) and a teeth-gritting moment where Francesca bravely submits to ritual scarring. But Christiana and writer Moya O’Shea have a light touch with the material, and the funny and sweet moments are a nice balance to the drama. The 70’s references come thick and fast (I snorted particularly hard at the jab at the truly dreadful Love Thy Neighbour), and the play is both pacy and absorbing. It’s also very well acted, with the kids in particular, Rhiannon Baccus and Jayden Jean-Paul-Denis giving sterling performances. Aural texture, recorded partly on location in Nigeria gives the whole thing the weight and heft of reality.
Ob’owa is a sharp and fearless look at the serious subject of child abduction. It would be easy to slip into hysterical pontification or cheap drama when telling a tale like this. Christiana and Moya do neither, treading a precise line, seeing both the humour and the heartbreak in the situation into which Francesca and Joseph are dropped. It’s great storytelling, and a very worthwhile excuse to simply switch off the telly for a bit and be told a story.
Ob’owa is available on the BBC iPlayer until 10pm this Friday. Do yourself a favour and cock an ear at it here.
“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
I think I’m at my happiest when I’m doing simple things. Reading, writing, cooking. A life lived quietly and without fuss. Today’s teaching strikes me as not just true, but directly applicable to the way I live my life. Simplicity, patience and compassion are all interconnected, and when you start to live with these three things in mind, then you are on your way towards a more contented existence.
I have always been a patient person, to the point where it becomes something of a kink. My favourite part of Christmas is the anticipation. Waiting to see how the dinner will turn out, what gifts are under the tree. As I tend to know what TLC has bought me beforehand (with the exception of The Pot, which came as a genuine, delightful surprise) the wait until I can get my mitts on the new loveliness becomes part of the pleasure of the whole experience. It’s an exquisite torture. See, told you. Kinky.
But patience also comes out of care and preparation. It’s pointless rushing a loaf of bread while it’s proving, or a slow-cooked stew while it bubbles fragrantly on the stove top. Is it a coincidence that my favourite meals are the ones that take a bit of time to prepare and cook, filling the house with delicious smells, allowing the expectancy of the meal to become part of the whole experience? I don’t think so. And of course, the food I like tends to be simple, hearty, rustic fare. I’m not a big fan of fussy over-done stuff. Although Heston Blumenthal always makes me laugh.
Compassion is a no-brainer. If you don’t live a life filled with understanding and empathy towards everyone else, if you lose your patience, then your time on the planet becomes much more complicated. People can be vain, stupid and cruel. That doesn’t mean you have to be. For the most part, getting angry with an obstacle of any kind doesn’t help matters. In fact, it can frequently make things worse. Basil Fawlty thrashing his broken down car with a tree branch is an image that springs to mind. I’ve never seen the boys at Kwik-Ft do that. Treating the people around you with a little patience, understanding and humour works wonders. Call it a charm offensive if you like, but it works a hell of a lot better than yelling and screaming.
Now, I know this is all making me sound like some sort of annoying zen guru, answering questions with yet more questions or gnomic statements, floating smugly through life. That’s not the case. The idiot in the modded Peugeot who cut me up on the way into work yesterday got the finger and a robust curse. I get angry and pissed off. I rush stuff and grumble about it. But I try to remember that simplicity, patience and compassion do work, and that sometimes all you need to do to solve a problem is to take a breath, step back and look at it differently. Sometimes, the answer really can be simpler than you think.