A Cook's Blog

"good cooking is never an accident"



a short crust

From “Living Within”, July

An unexpected poll at a gathering of friends last month left me wondering why my fellows, some great cooks amongst them, admitted to a man (or, more accurately, to a woman) that not one of them ever thinks to make their own pastry. A bit taken aback, I missed the opportunity to persuade or cajole, and I am not sure I will find occasion any time soon to remedy this and “indulge” them in in-depth talk of pastry.

So here may lie my opportunity to press a case for pastry making, especially important, maybe, at this time of the year when produce is at its peak and looking for opportunity to frame itself appropriately. I could tell you that, genuinely, it is neither hard nor time consuming to make, I might also add that it is not expensive, or that it is satisfying and can be a therapeutic pastime. But more important than any of this, probably, is that, done right, it will ALWAYS taste better than anything that you can buy.

The basic proportions for a short crust dough are very simple. You will need double the weight of flour to fat (butter is my preference). I learned at my mother’s elbow with a basic recipe of 8oz plain flour and 4oz fat (about 220g:110g), a pinch of salt and some ice cold water. There are many variations on this, but let’s start here with proportion and method and you can move onward to the internet, the library, or maybe even your own bookshelves to find further example.

Things to remember: keep the ingredients as cool as possible; chill the butter; ice the water. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl - if it looks lump-free in its packet, you can dispense with the sieve. Add a pinch of salt and mix in with a fork or wire whisk. Cut the butter into small cubes (about 1cm) and toss these into the flour. Now, maintain your cool! Keeping your hands as much out of the bowl as you can manage, and using ONLY your fingertips, squeeze the butter and the flour together, raising your hands up and out of the bowl as you do so (imagine that you are really letting air into the mix). With the lightest touch that you can manage, continue to do this until the fat and the flour look a bit like breadcrumbs; a heavy hand will warm the fat too much and cause you to have oily lumps instead of a light crumble, so look out for this danger. At this point add in the iced water, tablespoon by tablespoon. How much to add is a bit of an art form - one that you can hone with a little experience - but it is impossible to be too prescriptive. I add in about 4 tablespoons at the start, toss the ingredients lightly together through the fingers of one hand, or use a blunt edged knife to stir them gently together. Add in more water as you need it. What you are trying to achieve is for the crumbs to come together and just hold as a recognisable dough - one that is homogenous and will roll out without crumbling. So much easier to add more water in than to take some out - so proceed with caution. As soon as you have a dough, wrap it in cling film, gently press it into a disc, and flatten slightly, and allow to rest by chilling for 30 minutes in a fridge.

To make an easy, flat, free-form tart: melt about 40g of butter, very gently, set aside and keep warm. Pre-heat your oven to 180ºC (or equivalent). Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured surface using a lightly floured rolling pin (move the pastry often as you do to make sure it is not sticking - no need to turn it over) into a flat round disc a few mm’s thick, then transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (as you would shop-bought pastry too). Mix together a tablespoon each of: sugar; plain flour, and ground almonds (if you have them - sugar and flour will do if you don’t) and spread this over the pastry base (leaving a border of an inch or two all the way round - this will absorb excess juice from the fruit). Fill the middle with suitable fruit - halved apricots in my pictured example - you could also use pitted cherries, plums, sliced apples, blackberries - something that can take a bit of heat. Arrange in neat patterns or pile in a heap - anything goes. Sprinkle with two or three tablespoons of sugar (according to the sweetness or tartness of the fruit) and roll up the edges of the pastry to enclose the sides. Brush the pastry edge with the melted butter and sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of sugar on top of this. Place in the heated oven and bake until the pastry looks golden brown and crisp and the fruit looks tender (between about 25 and 45 minutes, depending on your oven - check often). Serve straightaway or at room temperature and pass round the cream.

Erica x

(www.acooksblog.com)

“Pastry requires very few ingredients, so it is particularly important to choose them carefully.”~ Michel Roux

Fish on Saturday

(From Living Within, June)

Parting ways with tradition and its sometime religious and other norms, Saturday night is when we most often eat fish in my house. Saturday morning shopping at Claygate Parade has become the family habit - we are blessed to have a full complement of almost everything that a shopper might need represented there, and in amongst the rest, one of the best fishmongers in the country. I have no official confirmation to support this contention (although I know they do not lack awards) but I am pretty sure it must be true. There may well be others as good, but I am not convinced that any could better the picture perfect marble slabs of fresh fish at Williams and Bunkell or the expertise that lies behind their presentation.

Our practice is to choose from what is available in the morning and then to work with it to make a Saturday night supper. Whatever that turns out to be, fish needing no long slow cooking or fancy extras as a general rule, it tends to be pretty simple. Much can be poached, baked, grilled or fried with a fair amount of flexibility and speed, and the flavours that seem to complement are not normally biased toward the over complex or powerful.

Gurnard was on the slab this weekend - no, not a fish I am too familiar with either, for those of you who are wondering, and not really a looker, but it does have a history of being relatively good value to recommend it as starting point. The fish crew selected and filleted a large specimen - not an easy task with a gurnard so I am told, but carried out, as always, with great skill - to provide two large fillets (enough for four if stretched); firm-fleshed, not quite a monkfish in texture, not quite a bream or a bass in delicacy of flavour, but delicious nonetheless and as easy to cook as any. Next door, FruitWorld had Cyprus potatoes and some fulsome green and white chard, and a menu was in the making.

Wash the potatoes well and slice as thinly as you can manage (a properly sharp knife is essential); toss in a bowl with some olive oil, salt and pepper, a finely sliced onion, and fresh oregano leaves (in full leaf in my garden pots right now, and so I used plenty) and a sprinkling of saffron if you have some - not too much, but saffron adds beauty to the colour and a subtle depth to the flavour when used in small quantities. Add in a small glass full of water (you could soften up the saffron in a little of it first to help it blend more easily), then mix together well and place in a gratin or roasting dish just big enough to hold everything comfortably. Roast, uncovered, in a hot oven for between about 30 - 40 minutes - until the top layer is nicely golden and a sharp knife poked through the centre finds little resistance.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the fish fillets by seasoning well on both sides with salt and pepper. About 10 minutes before the potatoes are expected to be finished, heat up a large frying pan, and fry the fillets in a little oil and butter over a medium heat (“presentation” side down first) until the fish is “just” cooked - be careful not to dry it out by frying for too long, the fillets are quite thick in the centre and need to be cooked through but gurnard has a reputation for being a little dry, possibly in part accounted for by overthinking how much time to allow for this. They will only take a few minutes on each side even watching the middle carefully. Once the fish is cooked and has a nice outside “crust” of golden brown, remove from the pan carefully and keep warm.

The fillets can be served with a little melted butter cooked with a squeeze of a lemon in the wiped down pan to pour over for serving, but on Saturday I let the chard do the work of balancing out flavour. Blanched in boiling salted water - thick white stalks cut into appropriately thick slices for about 3 minutes first, followed by the leaves (washed and needing only a minute or two in the boiling water) - drained and served dressed with salt, a dribble of olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon juice (cut lemons handed round separately for the fish if still needed) all was harmonious, and gurnard now added to our Saturday night favourites.

“There are quite a few species of this fish but, discounting minor variations …, they all look like Donald Duck”~ William Black

Erica x
(www.acooksblog.com)

Papillon

From Living Within, May


I have been away from home over Easter, in South West France, and it was lovely. The air full of perfume and promise, the afternoon sun as strong as summer, and the spring flora already including full-on rose and jasmine blooms in amongst the wisteria and the iris - delicious! We ate outdoors and, with a special occasion and visitors on the horizon, put lamb on the menu. Not having a spit roast attachment for my barbecue (or more accurately, not one that anyone can locate or has learned how to use) my habit, domestically, would be to get Paul from the Game Larder to butterfly a leg of lamb so that it might be cooked flat against the irons, and both it and we might seem a bit relaxed - casual even - with an easygoing centrepiece for an outdoor lunch and no deadline pressure for guests whose ETA is likely to be very approximate.



I took out my dictionary in attempt to work out if the word “papillon” might be “verbed”, or substituted for more appropriate idiom, in order to explain to Paul’s French counterpart (Alain) exactly what I required. I struggled, however, to find direct translation for this procedure; one that wouldn’t leave me potentially misunderstood (if not actively laughed at), or, worse, without the cut I wanted. In the event I opted to play it safe and went with description, but did happen to thrown in that, back in Blighty, we call the end result a butterfly. Arched eyebrows and a bit of bemusement at this English oddball request may have followed, but we all played it straight in the moment, the lamb was ordered, no obvious face was lost, and the technique with the pretty name in English beautifully achieved. There were remarks, however, as I went to collect it later, that Monsieur Evrard (Alain’s more formal “nom de guerre”) had understood, as he laid out the finished lamb, how perfectly apt is the “butterfly” moniker - maybe we English have just taught the French something about the charm of language, and, maybe, this little corner of France will put “papillon-ing” on the list of butchery techniques that they offer as a summer special; I can but dream.



But back to the cooking. Butterflied lamb can be treated as a whole piece or cut into a few large ones (three or four, along obvious lines once you have it in front of you) to keep the meat evenly sized - in terms of thickness - across the grill, and help it to take on as much “aromatising” over its surface area as possible. Rub salt and pepper all over, coat with a little oil (olive or other cooking), and then add whatever herbs you think might complement. Thyme and Rosemary are always a good bet, lemon juice (and zest) will help to flavour and to tenderise - white wine would do similar job - and garlic, chopped fine, is particularly good as the new season bulbs, fresh out of the ground, start to make an appearance on the markets with their delicate spring flavour.



Rub this marinade over the meat, turn the meat in it from time to time, but otherwise leave it to take on board flavour for at least an hour. Remove it from the fridge for the last hour in any case, even if you have left it marinading for much longer - it is never a good idea to put overly chilled meat straight into the oven or on the grill, the cooking time is harder to predict if the edges and the middle have a lot of catching up to do with each other, especially if the meat will not require much cooking. Sear the meat on a barbecue grill for about 3 minutes a side (until it looks nicely charred in patches) and then finish it off with another 5 minutes or so, either in a hot oven or slightly above the coals and with the lid on the barbecue (longer if you want your lamb only just pink rather than very rare - press it gently to see how it is doing - the more give there is in the meat the rarer the result; go carefully and check often, once you have lost any bounce you will have lost much of the tenderness and all colour except brown). Leave to rest for about 10 or 15 minutes, then slice and serve with salad, cooked vegetables, potatoes, bread, some type of grain or lentil - whatever takes your fancy - and maybe more fresh herbs as garnish or sauce (and don’t forget that mint goes very well with lamb).



The whole process is probably simpler if you happen to live near Claygate as Paul and his team have already perfected the art of the butcher’s butterfly and we can be pretty sure will know exactly what is meant if we ask for one. With my garden roses here currently in bud and the jasmine looking promising, we are only a short way behind our southern French confrères; we should be in our element “à table” out of doors in no time.

Erica x
(www.acooksblog.com)

Avril fait la fleur, mai en a l’honneur”~ French saying, “April makes the flowers, May steals the glory” (not too literal, but hey…)

Curry Patta

From Living Within, April

For some years now I have been in search of a local source of curry leaves. A Malaysian friend has sometimes shared supplies when her family is visiting; a New Malden grocer, once upon a couple of years ago, kept a semi-reliable (if almost never fresh) stock next to the bunches of coriander; Asda at Roehampton was, oh so fleetingly, a surprise source but, more recently, “kari patta” has meant a trip to Southall as the only supply that I can find outside Soho’s China Town.

I believed Jamie when he started using them several years back and said the supermarkets would follow his example, but the best they appear to have done since is offer a few dried leaves in a spice jar - and, for the record, don’t waste your money; the essential nature, not to mention all the fragrance and flavour are long gone by the time the leaf has reached this stage of desperation. So, imagine my surprise when Fruit World in Claygate was spotted recently not only displaying bags-full of this holy grail amongst herbs, but also the freshest and most healthy looking examples of these leaves that I have been able to get my hands on for a very long time. Gold Star for Mick and the team for branching out (badum tish!) and bringing them to Claygate Parade; and here is a blatant plea on my part to keep them there.

These dainty citrus herbs take their common name more from the dishes that they get added to than anything specifically curry-ish in their nature. Bitter-sweet in their lemony fragrance, they are an essential part of much of the cuisine of Southern India and South East Asia. It is hard to describe their effect to those who have not yet encountered them but they are so very distinct that if a recipe requires them it is wiser to ditch the recipe entirely than to attempt to find substitute for them. Unlike our own bay leaves (which they vaguely resemble in shape if not size), they are edible, so long as not too aged or large; do not consume them without cooking them however - they will not only be a little tough but they have been known to carry toxins in their raw state.

But what, you might ask, are we supposed to do with them? Curry leaves can be added to almost anything. Originating in South India, they marry well with mustard seed and turmeric and with fish and sauces to which coconut has been added, but you can add them to an infinite variety of Asian or even Western dishes - be bold and dare to experiment - once you have a supply stored in your fridge, you will want to make the most of them. Always allow them to fry a little before adding most anything else to the pot; throw a small handful (about 20) into some hot oil or melted butter, this will both tenderise and intensify fragrance and flavour. As soon as they start to crackle and take on translucent patches, you are ready to add in whatever aromatics come next - maybe onions and garlic, ginger or fresh chilli - continue to build your dish from this base.

Curry leaves will perfume a pilaff or a lentil dish most beautifully. For a delicate pilaff, sautée the leaves on their own or with whatever other spices take your fancy (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom are all suitable bed fellows); add in some washed and drained long-grain rice; stir gently (to cover with the oil in which you have fried the herbs and spices), and fry for a minute or two; add salt and enough water to cover by just over a centimetre; bring to a rolling boil; stir once; cover with a well fitting lid and leave to cook over a very low heat for about 12-15 minutes. Leave to sit in its own steam for a further 5 minutes after turning off the heat (without, at any stage, opening the lid), fluff with a fork and serve with whatever else is on the menu.

Incidentally, for those of you interested in potential health benefits, The Times of India indicates that, in amongst fighting diabetes and anaemia, these include greying hair prevention. I will take this news, as I do almost everything that I eat, with a healthy pinch of salt; while delighted with the joy these leaves bring to my palate, I will certainly not be amongst those applying them directly to my pate.

Erica x

(www.acooksblog.com)

“Nothing but the exotic, delicate, smell of a crushed (curry) leaf can transport me so successfully to India.” ~Stevie Parle

a hill of beans

(bean bag - flageolets)

From Living Within March

We have taken a bit of a battering over this winter but, when in crisis, we Brits are very good at calling for someone to start boiling water. Instead of steaming cups of tea or cleaning up operations, I am thinking bean-feasts and calling for the pulses - bastions of all that is cheap and tasty and good for you. There is much scope from a pulse in terms of versatility and good husbandry and only small amounts of effort involved in the cooking.

(under water)

Dried bean pulses come in many guises: cannellini; aduki; broad; black or red kidney; garbanzo; green flageolets; butter, or pinto, amongst many others. They require a bit of forethought although not a lot of effort. The night before you want to cook them, they should be washed and soaked in cold water, and, on the day, they will require an hour or so to cook through to tenderness. Once washed and soaked (on a sliding scale from about 8 hours for a bean to nothing at all for some lentils), discard the soaking water, rinse the pulses, and then cover in about twice their volume of clean fresh water and add some aromatics for flavour. There are certain things that will toughen up the outer skins and make beans and lentils harder to cook - salt in the water is one of them, acid is another, so in spite of all those Italian grandmothers and Jamie Oliver telling you to add a tomato to the cooking water, I would leave the tomato until later in the process. Add instead aromatics more appropriate for a light stock. Any or all of: a halved onion; whole garlic cloves; celery; bay leaf; thyme; parsley stalks; carrot; cloves, or peppercorns can be added to the water - then bring the whole, gently, to a boil.

(suitable aromatics)

Gently is the watchword of cooking pulses. While boiling point is needed to get the cooking process started, and in the case of kidney beans a 10 minute boil a necessity in cooking out potentially harmful toxins before simmering, with this exception, the more quietly you get there and the more calmly you leave the whole simmering, the more even the resulting pot full of tender pulses. As the beans come to the boil, they will give off a layer of foamy scum at the surface of the water, skim this off (it stops forming after the water is boiling) and when a sure boil is reached, turn the heat right down and put a lid to at least partially cover. Check the beans for tenderness from about 45 minutes onward, and in about 10 minute intervals thereafter, to decide when they are ready. Once cooked (the process will normally take between an hour or two depending on many factors including size and age of the dried bean) the pulses should be left in the cooking water to which salt is now added (a teaspoon or two - or more - as always, seasoning is a personal affair so I will leave exact quantities to you) and the beans allowed to cool; they will take on more flavour as they do so.

(with mint)

When you are ready to serve, drain an appropriate amount of beans from their cooking liquid (from which you have discarded the aromatics) and re-heat in a pan with a dressing of a little butter or olive oil (add a few tablespoons of the cooking water too to help loosen and heat the beans without having to fry them); do taste the beans at this stage and adjust salt and pepper levels as you see fit. Finally, when they are warmed through and ready to hit the plate, you can dress them with some chopped fresh tender herbs to complement whatever else you may be eating (parsley, mint, thyme, chervil …, you get the picture) or with some sautéed chopped tomatoes, and use to accompany or bulk out almost anything. Roast lamb, potatoes, squash, root vegetables, salads, cold cuts, soup - the list is almost as long as your imagination.

(canellini)

You can buy your pulses ready cooked and canned, it is easy and still cheap to use them this way, but nothing beats the flavour of those you have spent a tiny bit of effort on cooking for yourself, and almost nothing could be easier to do.

Erica x
www.acooksblog.com


“Cooking dried beans is as basic as it gets: put the beans in a pot, cover with water, and simmer until tender.”~ David Tanis

Candy Christmas

From Living Within, December

This season makes me think of candy sweetness. Sugar plums and candy canes jingle into consciousness on stage, and screen and through loud speaker systems, and candied fruit makes its annual appearance amongst the Christmas specials. Mince pies, fruit-heavy cakes and plum puddings all require their share of jewel bright glacé cherries and sweetly preserved citrus peel. The ultimate jewel in the candy crown may, of course, be the marron glacé (or candied chestnut) - not as a rule to be messed about with or mixed in with anything else, just relished as a luxurious and unalloyed joy (if your pocket allows that is) unadulterated by anything apart from the the pleasure of eating it. There is a reason that they cost stupid money - they require level upon level of skill and patience and fiddly process, and days (and days!) of tender loving care and attention - casualty levels are alarmingly high - so, no, you are not being ripped off, they are a luxury item as a result of the time and trouble that it takes to create them.

This year when I have been having some fun preserving, jams and jellies and marmalades, I might even given them another go as a home-made treat and, if you have the time (about a couple of weeks), and the inclination, do search out a method while the raw item is available to buy, fresh from the tree, and in the markets.

In their stead, I can offer you here a quick method for candying citrus peel, an essential ingredient to much of the seasonal fare, and one that is not even remotely as good when bought ready chopped in tubs from the supermarket. Candying fruit can be a painfully long process - the skins must be pre-softened so that the sugar doesn’t cause them to harden before they have a chance to sweeten, and the time to impregnate entire fruits (whole or in pieces) with sugar syrup and then allow them to dry is often lengthy. But here is a method that is relatively fast, and the end result can be baked with, nibbled on, or even dipped in chocolate to be served with coffee.

Take some large navel-type oranges (up to 5) - wash, cut in half crosswise, and scoop and scrape the pulp and membranes from the middle, leaving the white pith intact.

Cut long slices of peel, about 1cm at the broadest point. Place in a saucepan, cover with boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes - drain and repeat (with fresh boiling water) 4 more times (5 times in total); this will start softening the peel and take away bitterness. Drain for the final time and reserve.

Make a sugar syrup. In a heavy-based pan, add 250ml cold water to 500g granulated sugar with a teaspoon and a half of powdered ginger (optional, but will give a nice kick). Stir over a low heat until ALL of the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and when the syrup has boiled for a couple of minutes, add in the blanched orange peel, bring up to a gentle simmer and leave to cook (partially covered with a lid) for about 35 - 45 minutes or until the peel is softened. Take the peel, carefully, out of the pan, and leave to drain in a single layer over a wire rack. When they have stopped dripping and are cool, transfer to some waxed paper or baking parchment, again in a single layer, and sprinkle liberally with more granulated sugar; leave to dry for several hours, or overnight (best done near a radiator, in an airing cupboard, or some place warm and dry). When dry (no longer sticky), store in as airtight a jar as you can find.

I shall leave you with my best wishes for a Merry Christmas, and a quote from that harbinger of the Christmas season, “Elf” the movie.

Erica x
(www.acooksblog.com)

"We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy; candy canes; candy corns, and syrup." ~Buddy

Kale and Collards

(From Living Within, November)

North Carolina State Farmers’ Market

I have been travelling since I last wrote - a short trip round some of the Southern States of the USA. Technically, it is “fall” there but, if you squint your eyes enough to miss the mass of pumpkin patches (selling, not growing) and the plethora of Hallowe’en themed items hanging out on homes and businesses, you could almost imagine it still summer; the sun is hot and being outdoors the preferable option.

The South is having a bit of a moment food wise - the rest of the country is leaning in to see what is happening down there while a new generation of Southern cooks re-discover and re-imagine heritage ingredients and good down-home cooking. We ate like kings - soul food, fried chicken and okra, cornbread and creamy grits, lima beans and succotash, catfish and shrimp. We learned that buttermilk can find its way into a batter or a biscuit or a filling for a pie and add subtleties, softness or sharpness with which we are not familiar.

Whatever the main dish, “sides” normally feature - this is the land of “meat and three” (a main dish and three sides) and greens are nearly always on the menu. Southerners favour their greens bitter - turnip tops and dandelion leaves, arugula (rocket) and mustard greens - but by far and away the most popular are collards - large, cabbagey, bitter tasting, sold in the market in piled-up flat-leafed bunches, cooked in a smokey ham stock for a VERY LONG TIME, until the bitterness has been tempered and the colour darkened, and with so much seasoning - spicy, sour, sweet or just plain salty - that you must sit up and take notice and be grateful for that ubiquitous pitcher of iced water.

We have no collard greens here but we have a very close relation in kale. Now kale is not by any stretch at the glamour end of the vegetable spectrum, my optician mentions it as good for the eyes which makes it sound worthy; it is a difficult leaf to learn to love, particularly when sold by supermarkets in hermetically sealed plastic bags, hacked about with little care or understanding of the nature of the central rib or clue as to the look of the whole leaf. These quibbles aside, however, kale, curly or black (cavolo nero), has a complex winter flavour that is improved by the first frosts of the year and a stretch of cold weather, and is perfect for just about now.

The new Southern chefs, devoted as they are to locally sourced ingredients, inherited tradition, and recipes “talked down” through generations, do allow themselves whatever other influence happens to be theirs - “Grandma cooking on steroids" is how one Tennessee chef describes his style. So here is an English cook’s take on Southern collard-style greens, with a nod to the South and its traditional seasonings (notably onion and smoky ham); I have not worried about the dread word ‘authenticity’ that plagues our modern food landscape. These are greens influenced by a grandmother from South Carolina and a chef based in Nashville with Italian inclinations who have ”talked me down” some of their methods, but I have felt free to take or leave from them and add to them what I will - I hope that you might try them too with whatever main takes your fancy.


Blanch washed and sliced kale in a pan of boiling salted water until tender (about 3 minutes) - remove from the water and set aside to drain (reserve the cooking water). In a frying pan, fry some chopped smoked streaky bacon (ideally sourced from a good butcher and not a plastic packet) in olive oil until golden; add in a chopped onion and cook until soft, then add in sliced garlic, a sprinkle of chlli flakes and season with salt and pepper and allow the garlic to soften too. Add some cooked butter beans or cannellini beans and the cooked kale - stir and leave to simmer until the kale is as you want it - retaining colour and bite or very soft, as you prefer - use some of the cooking water to help moisten if you need extra liquid. Add a squeeze of lemon juice mixed in at the very end to sharpen up the flavour. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving; serve hot and, for those who want more of the South, with hot sauce to hand.

Erica x
(www.acooksblog.com)

"… most any Southerner worth their salt pork can tell you his experience with collard greens" ~John T Edge

Apple Harvest

(From Living Within, October)

I’ve been chatting with American friends recently and their bumper apple harvest is filling their lives with apple hunts and applesauce, apple crisps, and apple cider doughnuts - the latter available at their orchards, sometimes alongside some apple core vodka, if they are very, very lucky (exceptionally smooth, so I am told).

Their talk of Gravensteins and Honeycrisps and Macouns and Cortlands has whetted my appetite for our own English varieties. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a source of the Claygate Pearmain, first identified by one John Braddick in a hedge in our very own village in 1821, but while grabbing a final bag of damsons from the dwindling supply at Garsons last week, I found a nice display of recently harvested local apples - Russets, Coxes, Red Windsors and something called Scrumptious.

Russets

Red Windsors

Now of course you don’t actually have to cook apples to enjoy them - a good flavoured and textured apple is a joy to eat all by itself or with just a hunk of cheese but, that said, there is plenty of scope for the cook to get busy.

A simple applesauce is a pretty standard accompaniment to rich meat such as pork or game - bake the peeled and cored apples (sharp flavoured ones are best), cut into chunks, with a squeeze of lemon juice, a tablespoon or two of sugar (depending on the sweetness of the apples) and a couple of tablespoons of water, covered and stirred from time to time, and when the apples have become soft and will stir up into a smooth sauce they are ready for serving. For a more sophisticated savoury accompaniment, peel, core and slice apples (a variety that will hold its shape - not a Bramley, for example) and fry in a little foaming butter with a finely sliced onion, and season with generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper. As the apple slices start to take on a little colour, the onions to soften, and the whole looks just about ready to serve, stir in a tablespoon or two of cider vinegar; cook all together for a minute or two more and serve as for the applesauce.

Elizabeth David cooked her (eating) apples (peeled, cored and sliced) in a frying pan with some butter and a tablespoon or three (or four) of sugar - depending on quantity and sweetnesss of apples and individual taste buds - until they were gently coloured and nicely flavoured, carefully shaken or stirred so as to preserve their shape; you can serve this, as she did, as a very simple pudding, with or without cream, or use the apple slices in a shortcrust apple tart.

Apple crumbles are another very easy treat - slice up five or six peeled and cored eating apples and toss with a little lemon juice, about 5 tablespoons of sugar, two teaspoons of cinnamon and a small grating of nutmeg. Leave for about 20 minutes to let the juices start to run. Melt an ounce or so of butter in a frying pan, allow it to start foaming and to take on a little nut brown colour and aroma, then toss the apple slices and their juices into the butter - when all are coated and the juice is slightly syrupy, turn off the heat and transfer the apples to a baking dish large enough to hold them.

In the meantime mix together 100g plain flour, a small handful of rolled oats and 50g sugar; rub in 100g cold butter (cut first into small chunks) until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs - you can cover and chill this until you need it. When ready to go, pre-heat the oven to 180ºC, scatter the crumb mix over the top of the apples and bake for about 40 minutes, until it looks golden brown and the apple mixture is bubbling away at the bottom. Serve with cream or ice-cream.

Garsons’ display

Whether your source is Wisley, Garsons Farm, FruitWorld, or the supermarkets (at this time of the year, even they will have added to their normal imports with some locally grown specimens), I do hope you enjoy the start of this year’s apple season and that you make the most of as many varieties as you can lay your hands on.

Erica x
www.acooksblog.com

"Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love." ~ Song of Solomon 2:5

Jamming

A little late, but for the record - from early October.

Charlotte, checking for mellow fruitfulness

It’s all Charlotte's doing really. She was the one who prompted rounds of “cherry trumps” between us this spring, after she had rubbed my nose a little in Nancy Mitford's, still unfortunately apt, description of the sterility of the place in which I live - at least fruiting-tree wise - contrasting it with her own county (Suffolk), where she happens to live on a working farm, with an orchard. Just for the record, I won (I think), although - and Nancy would no doubt have smiled - I did have to invoke some cherry trees with their feet firmly planted in the Gironde in order to do so.


Top Trump


More recently I ventured to Suffolk where Charlotte weighed me down with generosity and grapes from her father-in-law’s laden and ancient vines (he was rather defeated by quantity and absence at the time), and the suggestion that grape jelly might be an appropriate way of preserving these particular fruit for seasons to come. As you might imagine, pride salvaged by way of the cherries, I was more than happy to acknowledge such munificence and superiority of grape harvest, and set to work straightway on making said jellies.



As a bit of a virgin conserver (what with living in Surrey and not having much of a glut of fruit to deal with in a normal year) and never having made a fruit jelly, I did a bit of research and it seemed that the technical bit - proportions of fruit to sugar to gelling agent (pectin) - are pretty standard. I relied, eventually, on a trusty looking tome “Larousse des Confitures”, aided and abetted by the late great Richard Olney, and discovered that grape jelly can be made with the juice provided from about 1.2kg of fruit (stalked) with an equal quantity of sugar (actual calculation based on a 1:1 ratio of juice, strained through a jelly bag - Heath Robinson contraptions perfectly acceptable - to sugar), the juice of a lemon, and about 200ml of apple juice - to add a bit of a pectin boost for a lowish pectin fruit.

So, on to the method. First cook your grapes. Put the (stalked and washed) grapes and a scant 200ml water into a large saucepan; bring to a boil and bubble gently for about 5 minutes pushing against the grapes with a skimmer or a spider or even a potato masher to burst the skins open at the same time. Next, pass the cooked grapes through a moulin à legumes on a fine setting (to get rid of the bulk of the skins and the pips).

Pour the resulting pulpy liquid into a jelly bag hung over a large bowl (a muslin cloth tied or pegged to an upturned stool or low table will do) and leave to drain, unassisted, for as long as it takes (from a few hours to overnight, depending on quantity and fineness of your muslin - the finer the weave, the longer the drain but the clearer the gel).

For the apple juice, simmer about 1kg of washed and quartered apples, sour ones are best, (no need to peel or to core but you can removed the stalks) in a litre and a half of water, for half an hour. After this time, ladle out the apples and their surrounding liquid into a sieve sitting over a bowl; allow the juice to drain through, don’t push it, and reserve. You will need about 200ml apple juice for the juice yielded from 1.2kg of grapes, the rest can be frozen in 200ml quantities for use at other times.

When all of your ingredients are ready to go but before you start work, you will need to sterilise some jars (1.2kg fruit to 1kg sugar makes, approximately 4 standard jam jars). Wash them in warm soapy water, rinse and drain (or wash in a dishwasher) and then put them in an oven at about 160ºC for 5 minutes or so (with their scrupulously washed lids if you are not sealing with cellophane or other means), then turn the oven off and leave the jars inside, untouched, until you need to fill them.

Meanwhile, put some small plates or saucers into your fridge or freezer to chill along with a handful of teaspoons and forget about them until later.

Weigh the liquid that you have captured in the bowl, put it into a wide, heavy-based saucepan (ideally a jam pan with outward sloping sides if you have one - if not, improvise as best you can) and add to it an equal quantity of plain white granulated sugar and the lemon and apple juices. Stir together, over a low heat, until ALL of the sugar is dissolved.

Bring to a boil, skim the boiling liquid of any initial scum that rises to the surface and then boil at a vigorous bubble for about 10 minutes or until the frothy scum starts to abate a little and the boiling bubbles are starting to change consistency (they will get bigger and slower), then start testing for a “set” (technical term). Vigorous boiling helps to speed up the process of getting the jelly to set but be careful that you don’t have hot spots at the bottom of your pan on which the mixture might “catch” or burn or caramelise - regulate the heat if you sense it is all getting at all out of hand.

Setting point is at about 105ºC (if you happen to have an appropriate thermometer) but can vary according to pectin and sugar and acid concentrations so can also be checked by dropping a small amount of the boiled liquid (using your pre-chilled teaspoons and plates) onto a plate and watching to see what happens to it. If it spreads uncontrollably, you are a way off. If it settles into a neat beady bubble that holds its shape and will wrinkle slightly when you push it (leave it to cool and settle a little first) you are there.

Do be careful not to overcook - you don’t want the jelly to become sticky or stiff, and caramelising the sugar will change the taste drastically; to this end, take off the heat immediately a set is reached. Once the bubbles have died down, skim the surface one last time of all the foam and bubbles sitting on the top - use a metal spoon - a special skimming one is best but you want something with relatively “sharp” edges, and then start ladling it into your sterilised jars. Fill them leaving about 1cm of head room and seal immediately; leave to cool and then store in a cool, dry, place or in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to label it, especially if you are planning on making more than one type or batch of preserves.

grape jelly

But grape jelly is probably at the advanced level end of the preserving spectrum. There is much for the perfectionist to concern themselves over. Grapes are not naturally high in pectin making the set problematic - but overboil and your jelly becomes gummy, underdo it and the gell may always sit on the sryupy side of soft (don’t lose heart though, the gelling process continues to work some magic for a few weeks after the making) and making the gell crystal clear involves concerns all of its own. So, moving back a preserving step and with a visit to France, a kitchen with a proper jam pan and, of course, markets full of fruit (notably plums of many descriptions and sizes) at my disposal I thought I might learn a few things from making some jams instead. Consulting my trusty “Larousse des Confitures” once more, it turns out that nearly all jam (or at least that relating to most varieties of plums, which is what I have been working with) can be made using about 1.2kg of fruit (net weight will be about 1kg once stoned) to 800g sugar (granulated white standard) and the juice of a small lemon.

Choose your plums carefully - you want them to be ripe but firm and without any significant blemish or mould on the outside. Wash, halve and pit the plums (you can use the lemon juice to help prevent a bit of browning of the cut edges but that’s up to you) and cover with the sugar in a large bowl - layer it up as you go if you like - but add in all of the lemon juice at this stage so that you don’t forget it later. Cover close to the surface with cling film and leave to macerate for anything from one to 24 hours. The longer you leave the fruit at this stage the more it becomes impregnated with the sugar - or so the theory goes.

Have ready your chilled saucers and spoons and jam pots (about the same number) as for the jelly.

Transfer the plums and sugar to a jam making pan, put onto a gentle heat and, stirring - at least from time to time - dissolve the sugar in the juices of the plums, all of it, then turn up the heat and boil and skim as for the jelly.

It will take about 10 minutes for this quantity of fruit for setting temperature to be reached (105ºC) but test with the cold plate as well. Do make sure that bits of the fruit and sugar don’t catch on the bottom of the pan at the vigorous boiling stage - regulate the heat carefully and stir from time to time to make sure that it doesn’t. Once you are happy that the jam has come to a set, turn off the heat and skim and jar exactly as for the jelly. Voilà! Couldn’t be simpler.

bobbing damsons coming to a boil

Jams made so far this year in my kitchen include both Quetsche (a kind of plum, not commonly available in the UK but can be found in parts of France) and Damson.

Quetsches

damsons

The Quetsche jam is very good, I made one version with some young walnuts and a bit of cinammon (be warned if handling young walnuts in their green outer shells, the staining to your skin will last about a fortnight and is really not pretty!)

a cautionary tale

But damson has proved significantly popular (and by the way, don’t believe anyone who translates questche via prune de damas as being the equivalent of an English damson - they may all have origniated in Syria and belong to the same extended family, but the size and the taste are quite different from each other); I have been struggling to keep up with supply and demand for this very time consuming and relatively hard to come by fruit (at least if you don’t have access to a damson tree).

Nigel Slater, states in his diaries that only a masochist would bother to stone a quantity of damsons before cooking them, and others talk optimistically about stones bobbing around at the surface and being easy to pick out of a cooked mass of fruit, but my advice would be to be wary of such seductive counsel - stoning the fruit allows you to be sure not only that the fruit is good inside (no wormy bits or spoiled areas) but also that the teeth of all your consumers are safe from unexpected trauma - take a little time (about an hour a kilo I’m afraid) and a very sharp small knife and cut out the grippy stones as close as possible to the flesh. However much work, the end result is well worth whatever effort is put into the making; it is supremely delicious.

The jam making season is destined to become one of my future favourites but, be warned, once you have mastered the technique, and tasted the finished product, a bug may start to get under your skin and you may make way more jam than any one family can really need. The time when you need to take proper stock, however, is perhaps when you start sizing up your garden for orchard potential.

"That’s why I hate to get started in these jam sessions. I’m always the last one to leave." ~Elvis Presley

Erica x

caponata

From Living Within, September

Marble fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Demeter, the goddess of agricultural abundance, stands at the left, clad in a peplos and himation (cloak) and holding a scepter.”

It’s funny how things have a habit of turning out alright in the end; summer did get here, eventually, and now that we have reached September all is right in Demeter’s corner of heaven as the harvests start coming home - almost on schedule.

But before we move on to the harvests, let’s just pause a moment to appreciate while we still can the bounty of summer’s heat. I want to show you sunshine in a bowlful of Caponata. First introduced, as far as I am concerned, by Inspector Montalbano in last year’s television series (filling the BBC4 Nordic noir slot while the nation was on holiday and not really watching) - Sicilian, gutsy, handsome in a rugged kind of way, caponata, has become a firm favourite of mine. An amalgam of summer veg with aubergine at its heart, held together in a sweetly sour binding of tomato and vinegar, caponata is pretty elastic in allowable ingredients and even better the day after making.

Here is a version that I have made recently, as authentic or inauthentic as any other, perhaps, as there appears to be no consensus in Sicily as to what is acceptable - feel free to tweak it with additions, omissions or substitutions as you will.

Aubergines and courgettes (a few of each) - chop into pieces about an inch cubed, give a light sprinkle with salt and leave to drain in a colander for as long as you are able (anything from 15 minutes to a couple of hours - the vegetables will disgorge some of their liquid during this process).

Onions, celery, garlic - roughly chop a large onion, take the fine yellow heart of a head of celery and chop into pieces roughly the same size as you have the onion, and slice or chop some garlic.

Tomatoes - use fresh if they are ripe and flavoursome, tinned at a pinch - core, skin, halve, and squeeze out the seeds of a few large tomatoes and chop coarsely.

Warm some olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan, soften the onion and the celery (about 10 minutes over medium/low heat) - until the onion is just thinking about turning gold - lower the heat, add the garlic and allow to soften for a minute more; add in the tomatoes, a little salt, turn up the heat, and cook until the tomatoes are pulpy, thick and saucy; add in a couple of teaspoons of wine vinegar and about the same of sugar, cook for a few minutes longer, taste and adjust the seasoning and then leave to cool a little.

Squeeze out some of the water from the salted vegetables, lay them out on kitchen paper and dry them as much as you are able. Heat some oil in a clean heavy-based frying pan - enough to shallow fry or to deep fry as you will - then fry the vegetables, in batches (never overcrowd the pan), remove from the oil when golden brown all over and drain on more kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little more vinegar.

When finished, add the fried vegetables to a large bowl. Mix in with them: a handful of toasted pine nuts (toast in a single layer in a hot oven for a few minutes only - watch them like a hawk so that they do not burn!); a tablespoon or two of rinsed preserved capers; a small handful of pitted olives (of any colour of your choosing or a mix, whole or halved) and, finally, the tomato sauce. Add in some chopped fresh herbs (basil, parsley or, even, mint would all be acceptable) and adjust the seasoning to your taste - some freshly ground black pepper if no more salt is needed. Finally add a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Leave, covered, for the flavours to meld in their residual heat for as long as you can (15 minutes if you are in a hurry but a couple of hours is best). Serve at room temperature - never cold or the range of flavours will be dulled.

As with almost all cooking, the quality of your ingredients will dictate the end result. Choose well flavoured examples of everything that you use, from the oil to the salt. Caponata can be served as a meal in itself (with some crusty bread alongside to mop up the juices) or as antipasto or accompaniment to other things. Buon Appetito!

Erica x

“‘What did you eat?’… ‘Caponata.’ he said in a choked-up voice
How on earth was it possible to get a lump in one’s throat simply by uttering the word ‘caponata’?” ~Andrea Camilleri