A Cook's Blog

"good cooking is never an accident"



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

The Southern Cocktail Hour

From Living Within, July/August - a little late in the day but just for the record.

July and August are the easiest months to write about food, in a normal year that is. This is the time when we can expect the early treasures to be superseded by the just plain plentiful and for the weather to be hot and balmy - at least some of the time. Now is the time to fire up the barbie and be outdoors with friends and family and food that is just so easy because it already tastes great before you even think about paying it too much attention. The only thing that might be sending you to your stove to spend some quality time is to preserve some of this bounty for the winter. Except this year such bounty as is coming in (normally by air) may also have been deprived of enough sun to develop character or flavour and, frankly, I am losing confidence in what to expect that we might be expecting.

So I think it might be best if, just for now, we imagine a place where warmth is more or less guaranteed and where food is the stuff of legend. Imagine, for example, that we are in the Deep South (and I’m not talking Brighton, we have headed off to the Cotton States of the US of A) and are looking forward to the crawfish boiling in a ten gallon outdoor pot, or the gumbo bubbling on momma’s stove, or the pulled pork that has been marinated and slow cooked to tangy perfection, or the corn that needs no more than shucking and tossing in a pan with a little butter and some chilli flakes. Meantime, sitting on our porch in the sultry heat that surrounds us, a little craving is making itself felt for something to snack on that will make those taste buds sit up and pay attention to that cold beer in our hand or that julep beaded with ice cold water dripping from the glass.

Are you with me yet? Well, allow me introduce you to one of my new favourite snacks - one that needs no sun on its back but will not be diminished by a little heat either, one that has been gaining ground away from its southern heartland in the States but which has, in this corner of leafy Surrey, yet to find the recognition that it so surely deserves. Let me introduce you folks to the fried pickle - yes, you heard that right and, please, don’t look away now, it has so much more to recommend it than the name or even the pictures might suggest.

Tangy and sour with some sweetness around the edges (if you are careful in your choice of pickle that is, which you really must be - choose large crisp dill pickles, ones that have a little sweetness) served fresh from cooking and with dipping and hot sauce fixin’s on the side, the fried pickle is a bit of a revelation.

To make these little delicacies: slice your pickles whichever way and however thick you like; dust in some flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper, paprika and a pinch of cayenne; dunk them in a dish of buttermilk (the sourness of which is the reason why you need your pickle to have a little sweetness) and, finally, coat in some breadcrumbs. When you have them all prepared and ready to go, fry in batches, in enough hot oil to cover the pickles and to turn them golden in a matter of minutes, and then drain on paper towels over racks and season lightly with more salt. Serve hot with the dipping sauce (mayonnaise, or more buttermilk with a couple of spoons of mayonnaise mixed in and seasoned with salt, pepper, ground cumin and freshly chopped dill leaves), sprinkle hot pepper sauce liberally over, if hot sauce is to your taste, dunk in the dipping sauce and enjoy with that ice cold drink.


I do hope all y’all have a great rest of the summer, whatever it brings from here on in, and with a bit of luck, by the time we are all back in September, an Indian summer will be settling in nicely.

Erica x

"If it ain’t fried, it ain’t cooked" ~Southern saying

April Spice

From Living Within, April

image

At about this time in a normal year I would be contemplating lightening up my wardrobe and bringing out the straw baskets for some spring shaped shopping but, as my paper reminds me this morning with news that mulled wine sales are up by 50% in Marks and Spencer stores this first week of the Easter holidays, this year is far from normal and we are still up to our ears in winter chill. Fatigue is setting in as we tire of our winter duds and of root vegetables and comfort foods; frankly, we have all had enough.

So what to do when the weather and the season are so out of step? In my kitchen I am headed on a spice trail; Moorish, Moroccan, Middle-Eastern or further to the great subcontinent of India, these cuisines don’t require exactitude of recipe based as they are on an understanding of harmony in aromatics, colour, texture and flavour, and are always welcome no matter the season or the outdoor temperature. For anyone interested in joining me, I am going to share here the elements of a generically spiced Indian curry.

The subcontinent is, of course, a big place and the influences on it many and varied. The Moghuls entered and conquered from the north bringing with them Persian influence and sophistication - an emphasis on meat is an important legacy from these powerful, manly invaders - and the paddy fields dedicated to that queen amongst rices, basmati, have from ages past been placed firmly around the foothills of the Himalayas, establishing this refined and scented grain as a regal staple here where biryanis and pilaffs are more associated with celebration than anywhere else. In coastal areas fish is predominant, and in the south, where coconut also often features, a more vegetarian ethos fits with the strictures of Hindu sensibilities (not to mention the prevalent poverty), and hot chilli peppers, introduced from the Americas by Portugese colonisers, are the most widely adopted form of heat and piquancy. So you can see that a generic Indian anything is not really going to be an easy task. Nevertheless I offer here a method for an easily adaptable curry that can accommodate fish, foul, meat, and even vegetable and, once learned, can be repeated and built upon as you make it your own without it ever becoming tiresomely familiar.

Spices are added whole or ground into the cooking pot and it is important to understand how they work. Nearly all spices benefit from some cooking to help release their flavour and crushed or ground that flavour is released more fully; however, ground spices lose their potency very quickly, which is why one must throw away ground spices that have been sitting in the cupboard for any length of time. The ready ground from the supermarket are fine for an everyday kind of meal, but if you want something truly special take the time and trouble to grind your own as and when you need them. Most whole spices will benefit from gentle toasting in a dry pan (over a lowish heat and for just long enough for them to start to smell fragrant) and then grinding them in either an electric coffee grinder (one that will never, ever be used to grind coffee incidentally!) or with a mortar and pestle.

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The early building blocks of this curry include whole cardamom pods (split to expose their seeds), cloves, cinnamon stick and bay leaves toasted lightly in a heavy and wide based pan, otherwise empty apart from a little cooking oil. As soon as these spices have started to release some fragrance, and taking great care not to let them burn, add in copious amounts of finely sliced onions (at least two and three or four usually won’t go amiss). The onions need to brown in order to give the right flavour and colour to the finished dish and their volume will reduce considerably as they do so. Stir them regularly (constantly if your heat is very high and you want caramelisation to happen quickly) until they are an even shade of golden brown; again, you must be careful not to burn them for as soon as this happens the flavour will turn from fragrant to acrid.

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Season the onions with a little salt, turn down the heat and add in some ginger-garlic paste - made by peeling a thumb sized piece of ginger and two or three cloves of garlic and either chopping them very finely, or grinding them to a paste (this can be done in an electric processor but is also achieved very effectively with a grater - a fine blade for the soft garlic and perhaps a slightly coarser one for the more fibrous ginger). This paste should be cooked and stirred for two or three minutes, enough time for a change in aroma from sharp and slightly harsh to something perfumed and having lost all raw edge; it absolutely must not burn, which it is inclined to do if the heat is too high or if it is allowed to stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add in some ground spices - a teaspoon of turmeric, a scant tablespoon of cumin and coriander and a half a teaspoon or so of chilli powder, hot or mild according to your taste and tolerance for chilli heat. These will also need stirring and gentle cooking for about a minute. If at any stage the mixture is in danger of sticking to the bottom of the pan, add in a little water - no more than a teaspoon or two at a time, the spices and aromatics should remain as a paste and toast or fry not boil.

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To enrich the paste add some chopped tomato flesh (skin and seeds removed) and/or some plain yoghurt or coconut milk. Yoghurt has a tendency to “split” or curdle at high temperatures so add it gradually and stir it in carefully over a low heat; if it does curdle, don’t worry too much, the look not the flavour will be the main casualty. Once your base sauce is beginning to simmer and has a thick consistency, add in whatever you would like to cook in it. Choose from: diced stewing lamb; chicken pieces (skin removed); fish (choose something that will retain it’s shape once it has cooked), or prepared vegetables. Season your chosen main ingredient before you add it to the pot or just after you have done so and coat in the sauce. If you need more liquid at this stage, add in a small wineglass measure of water but bear in mind that the main ingredient is likely to give off liquid of its own. Simmer, stirring from time to time and covered if cooking is going to take more than a few minutes only for as long as the main ingredient requires to cook: fish, for example, will take minutes, chicken somewhere in the region of half to three quarters of an hour and lamb up to a couple of hours or longer depending on cut and how slowly you cook it; fish should be just cooked, meat should be tender and the sauce should be thick and well flavoured.

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Toward the end of cooking time taste the sauce adjust the seasoning and remove any visible whole spices. Add some fresh tomato wedges if you like and garnish with finely chopped or sliced fresh ginger or chilli and fresh chopped coriander leaves. Serve with a salad of chopped cucumber and tomato, hand around plain yoghurt and maybe some chutneys and accompany with bread or with plain steamed long-grain rice (preferably basmati).

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There is much you can do to alter and embellish this curry - other spices, herbs, vegetables and sweetening and souring agents will each add their own qualities - but this basic dish, I am prepared to lay odds, will taste like nothing you have tasted in any restaurant. You are at liberty to be as gentle or as heavy handed as you like with the spices and flavours and, once mastered, there is no going back!

Erica x
(www.acookinthekitchen.co.uk)

"The most important element of cooking is the taste you create." ~Ismail Merchant

it’s not just about the soup

From Living Within, March 2013, page 21

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At a friend’s house for supper a few nights ago our host had spent time, and no small effort, cooking a Jewish delicacy, one that is known by name pretty much the world over but not something that I have actually ever tasted before. Frankly, I have very little knowledge of Jewish food or the symbolism that surrounds it but it was a treat to be offered this wholly unexpected gem of traditionalism, a labour of love if ever I encountered one; I am of course talking Chicken Soup.

It sounds pretty simple but there is much more to it than I would have imagined - noodles and matzo balls, a broth rich enough to be considered therapeutic and accompanied, naturally, with tales of matriarchs and in-laws, discussion of the relative merits and densities of a matzo, and apocryphal anecdotes of Hollywood sirens concerned for the fate of the rest of the matzo animal. But I hear tell that the Chicken Soup debate is an emotional minefield within Jewish communities and, unqualified as I am to enter it, will offer no further critique other than to say that ours was delicious and the occasion very special.

It occurred to me that soup plays a role in many histories and traditions. It has achieved a level of immortality in popular culture: in song from the Mock Turtle to Carole King, and as comedy gold from a real-life New York soup stand in Jerry Seinfeld’s 90’s TV sitcom. Whether homely pottage, delicate consommé, smooth velouté or spicy mulligatawny, soup can be a comfort, a cure, a leveller, an appetite stimulant - but whatever else it is, it always feels familiar.

In a month when our thoughts are turning, almost desperately, to spring but in which we are still waiting for spring veg to become more fulsome and available, soup enables us to straddle the seasons with some ease; we can incorporate those vegetables that have taken us through winter and add in the vitality of spring as and when we see it.

Italian minestrone would be my soup of choice with which to make this almost seamless transition. There is no place for an overly prescriptive recipe for a minestrone as we have to allow for almost any vegetable to find some space in its allotted time in the calendar, and anyway, as for a Jewish bubbie, no two Italians are likely to agree on the exact details of how to achieve perfection in it. A minestrone requires a broth - chicken, vegetable or, at a pinch, plain water - a base of aromatics on which to build flavour, something starchy to thicken it and often a little splash of green with which to brighten its finish.

To go through the building blocks in a little more detail we should start, briefly, with the broth. Whether vegetable or light chicken in base, this should have been made from raw ingredients and not a stock cube. You can buy (at considerable expense) fresh stock in the supermarket, but better if you can to make your own with a left over carcass and/or some vegetable trimmings - simmer gently in enough water to cover for as long as it takes to extract the flavour (an hour or so for vegetables, upwards of 2 for chicken) skimming and straining the resulting liquid at strategic points along the way (namely as it comes to a boil before being reduced to a simmer, and when you have decided it is done). If all else fails, a minestrone can be made with water instead of broth, although you will probably have to go a little heavier on the seasoning to make up for the shortfall in flavour.

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The base aromatics are traditionally a mix of onion, celery and carrot - the holy trinity of vegetables - diced finely and softened in a little oil or butter over a low heat. In Italy this is called a soffrito and acts as a flavour base for many different dishes. The soffrito should be soft and well cooked but never browned and will take, at least,10 minutes to cook down slowly.

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Once the soffrito is ready, the other vegetables and broth can be added all in their time. Some sliced or chopped garlic might be added to the base to further enrich the flavour and when this has softened, any other vegetables (excluding anything that will take less than 3 minutes to cook) in order of how long they will take to cook through. These might include finely sliced leek, a chopped fennel bulb, chard stalks, potato (diced or whole), podded peas or green beans (broad or french). When all these vegetables are in, add a couple of litres of broth or water. Bring this to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. The soup will be ready as soon as the vegetables in it are tender. Anything that only requires a little wilting in hot liquid should be added just minutes before serving; finely sliced spinach or chard leaves, for example, which should stay a vibrant shade of green; overcooking these will dull both their colour and their flavour

The starchy element can come from a number of sources. Potato; some pre-cooked chickpeas borlotti, cannellini, or other beans; pasta noodles or shapes (again pre-cooked), or a handful of raw rice are all candidates. Add enough to add some substance but be careful (especially with rice which will expand significantly on cooking) if you don’t want the soup to finish thick enough to hold a spoon upright. Anything that is already cooked will need no more than 5 minutes to absorb flavour but allow enough time for rice or potatoes to cook through.

Seasoning should be added gradually; it is probably best if you add a little salt each time you add a new ingredient (taste it before you season once the broth has been added). Use a light hand at the beginning and remember to taste the soup at the end of cooking so that you can make final adjustments.

Once the soup is ready, serve in warmed bowls. Garnish with any or all of some chopped tender herbs (basil or parsley), a drizzle of well flavoured olive oil, a handful of Parmesan cheese and some freshly ground black pepper.

The soup should be hearty but, for those who require more substance, you can always have to hand some fresh crusty bread; and the customary call to table? “Soup’s in!”.

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Erica x

www.acookinthekitchen.co.uk

"This man sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America. I feel very strongly about this, Becky; it’s not just about the soup." ~Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron)

there will be blood - a marmalade epic

(A little late in the day; this draft got held up in the finishing and is just making it into the end of February - it should have appeared a month ago*)


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A word of warning to those who choose to read ahead, this post is going to get detailed and a little technical (not to mention a little long) because, not having made marmalade in a while, I have done a fair amount of research for this project. For the sake of my future preserving self, I am recording a little of what I have found, so be prepared for what may be a surfeit of detail.

Marmalade, it seems, is pretty much an exclusively British obsession in the early months of each year. Seville Oranges - sour, coarse, pippy - arrive fleetingly on our shores from the beginning of January; the Spanish seemingly happier to sell their crop to us than to use their own harvest. No other oranges will really do to make proper British marmalade, the bitterness of a Seville being essential to a sophisticated marmalade palate. Some of us even become a little fanatical in our desire to perfect these bitter sweet preserves and to record the experience and compare notes and preferences.

American tastes, by and large, do not seem to run to marmalade; national palates there, so I am told, are attuned to sweeter or saltier preserves (grape jelly and peanut butter? ) and having, in any case no history with or crop of bitter fruit to use have no need to have acquired this particular foible. However, whether you consider a taste for marmalade refined, acquired or aberrant probably owes more to your geography and upbringing than to any absolutes of taste or sophistication.

Marmalade making, like all preserving, is a bit of a science. A certain proportion of fruit to liquid to sugar, the natural pectin of the fruit put to use to provide a set, but broad method and fine detail allowing the maker to exercise both choice and skill. The shred can be coarse and chunky or fine and delicate; marmalade can be very tangy with pith included in its body, or it can be clear gelled, pithless and shredded fine or, in extreme cases, shredless (although I think the fans of this last variety probably buy theirs off the supermarket shelf).

Tawnys and Vintage Oxfords lie at the heavier, tangier end of the spectrum and the more delicate, perhaps wimpy, Golden and Silver Shreds at the end where my taste buds were, in childhood, more comfortable (the alternative being my father’s Oxford thick cut for which I still have no fondness). My palette has developed and sharpened a little over the years; tangy is good, so long as not too thick and dark, and I prefer my marmalade with a little substance, more orange than tawny, with peel and never too sweet or syrupy.

So what else did I find out? I found that there are numerous techniques, preferences, and conflicting tips; there are those who boil whole oranges and then cool, peel and shred them before adding sugar; these fast workers will typically have their marmalade made in a day. There are others who slice the fruit first and then take a couple of days over the affair. There are those who swear by unrefined sugar to avoid "toxic froth" (although I think that this may in fact be toxic tosh and the unrefined and brown sugar contingent simply prefer their marmalade darker and more caramel tasting); the opposing camp profess a better colour and flavour will be created by white granulated (never caster or icing which will give you problems), and, finally, there are those who warm their sugar while others think that this is a waste of time.

I scoured my bookshelves and the internet and found an obscure and sketchy recipe that took three days to prepare and this time factor, to my mind, translated to a superior marmalade (although there is no other evidence than time taken to suggest that this is true). An idle comment from somewhere that water is not the only suitable liquid led me to believe my marmalade might be more “orangey” if I were to substitute the juice of sweet oranges for some of the water, and this, coupled with the appearance of blood oranges alongside the Sevilles, led me to believe, further, that I could make a luxurious product with a particularly beautiful colour if I mixed the two (although, quite possibly, I have only made it more expensive).

I am a week behind Nigel Slater, (*or at least I was when I started!) but then he has a column and a deadline to make while I am lacking not only discipline but an editor and a character limit.

Anyway, I will delay no further and provide you with the recipe and notes that I followed; a record for myself if there are no others game to take on a three day challenge. The three days involve slicing the oranges and soaking and part cooking and soaking again before getting round to the nitty gritty of adding sugar (always, always to pre-softened peel that will otherwise become tough as soon as the sugar hits it). The peel in the finished product with this method should be particularly tender (even if it is not always very fine) having benefitted from its prolonged bathing.

This method involves a little more sugar to fruit than is traditional (simply because it also requires a little more liquid). The flavour is supposed to be mild although mine has a definite tang - a level just above subtle - and it is not overly sweet. The set is good, the peel well distributed and prominent, and the colour a golden amber (the colour of the blood oranges, unfortunately, not particularly noticeable in the final product). The flavour is good and in this, I like to think the blood oranges have played some part, simply because, after slicing all those Sevilles, with their bothersome pips and strong orange aroma, the beauty and fragrance of the blood oranges was notable and in my mind, at least, will have added a little finesse to the finished project (although I could, of course, just be kidding myself).

This quantity of ingredients will make about 10lbs marmalade. Most extra large pans will have difficulty coping with this in one batch and I cooked mine in two.





3 DAY MARMALADE

Ingredients:

12 Seville oranges;
2 blood oranges;
2 lemons;
4½ litres juice/water or a combination of the two,
(I used 12 blood oranges which contributed just under 1 litre of juice);
Approx 3kg white granulated sugar (calculate exact weight as per instructions in the method;

Method:

Day 1

  • wash all of the oranges and lemons with hot water.
  • Thinly slice all of the oranges (except the blood oranges being used for their juice) and one of the lemons, teasing out all of the pips at the same time. Put the citrus slices into a large bowl and put the pips into a small one.
  • juice as many of the blood oranges as you like and add enough water to the juice to create 4½ litres of liquid in total (or use 4½ litres of water).
  • cover the citrus slices with about 4 litres of the liquid, weighing them down in the liquid with a large plate or similar so that they do not float above it, and cover with cling film; cover the pips with the remaining 500ml liquid and also cover with cling film. Leave all to steep, in a cool place, for about 24 hours.

Day 2


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  • put all of the citrus slices and their soaking liquid into a large, heavy-based pan. Bring to a boil, skimming off the surface scum/foam that rises to the top, and then allow to simmer gently for about 30 minutes;
  • remove from the heat and leave to steep, covered, for a further 24 hours (or thereabouts).

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Day 3

  • sterilise jars and lids . (You can sterilise them in the hot wash setting of a dishwasher, remember the jars should be warm at the time you are ready to fill them.)
  • sieve the pips from their soaking liquid and reserve both; divide the pips into two and put into two (small) muslin bags and tie the bags securely with kitchen string. Add the juice of 1 lemon to the liquid that the pips have soaked in;
  • weigh the fruit and the liquid (including the liquid that has soaked the pips) separately from each other;
  • put all of the liquid back into your original pan (keep the fruit pulp separate at this stage) and add sugar . To calculate the amount of sugar, bear in mind that the liquid will be about twice the weight of the fruit pulp and for this you will need about 1kg of sugar per 500g of fruit pulp - the ratios are: 1 part fruit pulp : 2 parts liquid : 2 parts sugar (for other methods, the fruit to liquid to sugar ratios are about 1:1:1);
  • over a low heat, gently stir the sugar in the pan (preferably with a large metal spoon) until it is dissolved and there is no trace of grittiness - raise the heat and bring to a boil and allow to boil briefly; remove from the heat. ;
  • the weight of the sugar syrup that you have just created will be equal to the weight of all of the liquid plus whatever weight of sugar you added to the pan (for example, if there was 3 litres of liquid (which would have been the equivalent of 3kg) the syrup should now weigh 6kg). Divide this syrup into two equal quantities (by weight and NOT by volume - 300ml of sugar syrup will weigh more than the same volume of water or orange juice) and put one half back in the pan and reserve the other half until later. Divide up the fruit pulp into two equal weights and add one half to the syrup in the pan together with one of the muslin bags full of pips;
  • bring the ingredients up to a good rolling boil and then boil at the highest temperature that you feel comfortable with (and from which the marmalade will not damage you or make too big a mess of your hob) - I used an AGA hot plate and a simmering plate which I danced between depending on how much mess they were making and how low or high the rate of boiling;
  • skim the top regularly if you see any foam/scum appearing and, from time to time, give the bag of pips a squeeze to make sure that it is releasing pectin efficiently into the mix. You can stir, or not, with a blunt ended wooden spoon or heat proof spatula, according to your preference; stirring will lower the temperature temporarily but will even up the heat across the pan and will stop the mixture from catching on the bottom of the pan if it is inclined to do so;
  • start checking for a set after about 10 - 15 minutes. A set will be achieved at about 105ºC (a temperature that is harder to achieve, in an even spread across the pan, from 104ºC than you might think); check at regular intervals (start at about 10 minutes and make those intervals shorter the nearer you get to temperature). Keep a few saucers in the freezer to do a second check; take out a small quantity of the marmalade with a teaspoon, put it on a freezing cold plate, and as soon as it is cool, check to see if it will wrinkle if you push it with your finger - if it remains liquid, you are not there yet, as soon as it wrinkles you are done;
  • as soon as a set is reached, take the pan off the hob, skim any scum/foam from the top and remove the muslin bag (two pairs of tongs might help with this). Leave to cool, without further disturbance, for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, make sure that your jars are ready and that they are warm;
  • After 15 minutes, stir the marmalade gently to redistribute the peel and then, using a an appropriately sized ladle and a jam funnel, if you have one, (and remember, the width of the neck of the jam funnel needs to be smaller than the size of your jam jar openings - needless to say, I didn’t think about this beforehand!) pour the marmalade into the jars; seal immediately and leave, where they stand, to cool completely;
  • repeat the whole process with the other half ingredients that you have reserved;
  • when the marmalade has all cooled, tighten up any loose lids. The marmalade can be eaten immediately, but it will mature after a week or four and the flavour should get better. Store in a cool place and use up within the next year or so;



A few things that I learned the hard way: a muslin bag should not be overlarge; marmalade making takes longer than you think; a sugar thermometer that sits in the pan and that you don’t need to hold might make life easier; prepare for everything to get very sticky, and, just for the end of day three, to feel for a moment that you may never, ever, eat marmalade again.


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"I came all the way in a lifeboat, and ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade." ~Paddington Bear, Michael Bond

Erica x
www.acookinthekitchen.co.uk

Saint Valentine’s Day

From Living Within, page 21, February 2013

imagea mated pair of pheasants is always to be found together; detail from “The Unicorn is Found

St Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, celebrated for centuries on 14 February each year in spite of there being no clear single identity for him or striking reason why he has become associated quite so completely with romantic love. Nevertheless, the name Valentine is very much associated with hearts and flowers and all things pertaining to lovers and his Feast day is documented as being so connected as far back as the late 1300s when Chaucer made reference to St Valentine’s day in his poem The Parliament of Fowls; the birds of the air gather on this particular day in this particular poem to plead for and choose their mates (some, it must be said, more successfully than others).

Modern day St Valentine sentiment may be considered to have become a little formulaic and lacking in imagination. There is attached to Valentine’s day, as with so many other religious days of observance, a bit of an industry, and cards and gifts may tend toward the cheesy and the more general rather than the personal. An anonymous card sent to the object of one’s affection may suffice for the young and the young at heart but, assuming that, like me, you are past the stage of furtive cards and mystery admirers, how best might one push the boat out and show that you care this St Valentine’s Feast?

You could book a table at a restaurant and let someone else do the cooking. You will, of course, have to sit with other Valentine couples trying hard to find a little personal romantic space in a public setting, and you will probably need to have planned well ahead - good restaurants will be busy - but there is no doubt that good food cooked by an expert can be a treat.

But to avoid the cliché, not to mention the slight awkwardness of attempting romance against all the odds in a crowded room, you could stay home instead and cook for your beloved. It is probably best to Invest in something a little special ingredient-wise, chill a bottle of bubbles, with no need to worry about who is going to be noble and drive home afterwards, and do make a dessert. I would avoid, however, going in for anything that is going to take hours of work or likely to be in any way a disappointment in terms of reaction gained against time spent or from over ambitious menu planning.

As the old dictum has it “Faites Simple”. While a little luxury is unlikely to go amiss and pains should be taken to avoid the humdrum for this particular week night supper, this doesn’t have to mean a multi-coursed extravaganza either. Choose what you will, a good steak or something roasted if you like, but some shellfish I think would be perfect; lobster, perhaps, if your wallet runs to it, but, if not maybe some clams or prawns. Mixing any of these with a little pasta will stretch them to a filling supper with a touch of the exotic about them and they couldn’t be easier or faster to cook.

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Clams require scrubbing when you bring them home, individually, under clear, cool, running water; any open ones that don’t close up when they are tapped should be discarded before cooking, and conversely, any that don’t open up when cooked should be discarded after. Once washed, leave them covered with a cool damp cloth (or newspaper) in a cool place (the salad compartment of the fridge is probably best) until you are ready to cook them.

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When you are ready to eat, place a large pan of water on to boil for the pasta (linguine or spaghetti would be good), and, when it is boiling, salt it well. In the meantime, heat a wide, shallow, heavy-based pan, one for which you have a lid and one in which the clams will sit comfortably in one layer, add a little oil and a clove or two of garlic, sliced or chopped, and, as soon as the garlic starts to cook (and well before it starts to burn) add a generous splash of white wine, and/or a few diced, skinned and seeded fresh tomatoes. When, all is good and hot, throw in the clams, clamp on the lid and time for about 3 minutes, cooking all the time over a fairly high heat and shaking the pan a couple of times during cooking.

Check after 3 minutes and, if the majority of the clams are open wide and looking plumply ready, turn off the heat, sprinkle the whole with some chopped fresh parsley, check and adjust the seasoning (ie add salt and/or ground black pepper to taste) and give a quick stir. Leave, uncovered, to one side until the pasta is done. If you are feeling perfectionistic, you can remove about two thirds of the clams from their shells, leaving a few with shells intact to look decorative, and you can strain off the sauce and reduce it a little to concentrate the flavour (before seasoning) but neither step is strictly necessary.

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While the clams are cooking, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet but set your timer for a minute less than those instructions say that it will take to cook. When time is up (bar that minute), test the pasta for doneness - it should retain a little hardness at its core but be almost cooked through. Remove the pasta from its boiling water (using tongs, a spaghetti fork or a large slotted spoon or spider) and put it into the pan with the clams; turn the heat back on under the pan. Toss the pasta with the clams until it is well coated with the sauce that the clams have given off and serve immediately (sprinkled with a gesture of olive oil and more chopped parsley if you like). From start to finish, the whole thing can be made in just a little longer than the time it has taken for you to cook the pasta.

Lobster can be added to pasta in similar fashion; if it is already cooked (as I am assuming is likely) you can warm chopped lobster flesh (with or without shell attached) with similar ingredients used as a base to those that I have suggested for the clams (you will not need a fiercely high heat this time - cooked lobster requires only gentle warming, not further cooking). You may want to soften some finely chopped fennel in a pan and add a small splash of pastis and a scant sprinkling of chopped tarragon as substitutes for the garlic, white wine and parsley (allow the fennel to cook gently until it is nice and soft before adding the lobster) - these gently sweet aniseed flavours, if not overdone and overpowering, can complement lobster very well. Tomato gives additional colour and flavour, but is, as for the clams, entirely optional.

Given that it is Valentine’s day, whether you choose to stare doe-eyed at each other across a shared dish of noodles, like that famous scene from Disney’s “Lady and The Tramp”, is your affair entirely and I shall not make any further suggestions except to say that I would add a simple dessert - a crème brulée, a melting chocolate fondant, or perhaps a pink tinged cake of some sort - and to wish you all a Happy St Valentine’s Day.

Erica x
(www.acookinthekitchen.co.uk)

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"spice a dish with love and it pleases every palate" ~Plautus