Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.

 

The scent of Seville oranges fills the Potwell Inn kitchen.

A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse.  I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors.  Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges.  By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.

The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels.  We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.

It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade.  Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance.  Normally!

It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools.  I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel  artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.

Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground.  Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.

Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise.  When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.

img_4840But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community.  He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane.  He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”

I feel better already!

Where’s the little sharp knife?

 

Squash the juniper berries roughly , maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don’t want them so much a powder, simply well bruised.

I was reading Nigel Slater’s vegetable cookbook “Tender” when that phrase suddenly struck me.  One of the reasons his books are such a pleasure to read is that they so often capture the sense of what it feels like to cook. Cooking is a truly multi-sensory experience involving taste and smell, colour, sound and texture but also memory of meals eaten, lessons learned, friends who were deeply appreciative and meals cooked and swallowed rather than savoured by those who could not recognise a love letter unless it was written down. Some food writers are a bit cerebral; some assume you’ve got skills you never learned, some assume that the pleasure is all in the eating, and that the cooking is no more than the warm-up for the main event.

My mother taught me how to make Yorkshire puddings one Sunday morning when the condensation was running down the kitchen windows. “How do you know when it’s thick enough?” I asked. The answer came in an action; she moved the spoon rapidly back and forth in the bowl causing the mixture to flop back making an utterly distinctive sound that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a formidably accurate measure that works every time but I couldn’t describe it in words.  The old cookbook standby “like cream” is too vague. The sound, on the other hand, never lets you down.

And in that contemplative moment I remembered her little sharp knife. She wouldn’t have known what ‘mise en place’ was all about but she knew that it was always kept in the right hand drawer of the cupboard in the kitchen, and she also knew that she was the only person in the house who understood why that was important. Other people would take it out to cut string, or whatever, and then it would be left lying around somewhere else, not close at hand.  It was everything to her, although it was probably second hand when she acquired it from her mother. Sharpened to the point where there was little of the original shape or length left, in truth it wasn’t that sharp at all but just sharper than the others. Carbon steel, slightly flexible and stained by what might have been generations of use: it came to represent her. It was her peeler, her tester her filleting knife

That was the knife I used when I first learned to trim shin of beef. I thought you had to remove all the connective tissue so I landed up with some very small shreds of meat and threw all the flavour and texture away. I used it clumsily to core kidneys with much the same results, but in doing so I learned something about the tactile pleasures of cooking. It’s hands-on and hands-in alchemy that takes the most unpromising or even faintly disgusting, and transforms it into something beautiful. Every day the ugly duckling in the larder becomes a swan. She had a tiny repertoire of meals that marked the seasons year by year. The day she made a curry for the first time, the day she added a single chilli to a stew were memorable days because her menus revolved like the stars in the sky. Innovations were like comets hinting at disasters to come.

The sensual pleasures of cooking are not talked or written about nearly as much as those of eating and yet they’re the foundation of good cooking. It’s in the hands, between the fingers, even with the whole body when kneading dough. The difference between right and not quite right are better inscribed in tactile memory than they can ever be described in words.  But Nigel Slater sometimes gets close.