Lime jelly and the postmodernists

When teaching undergraduates about the postmodern novel, I give them clues what to look for. One of the easiest ways to test for postmodernism is to ask whether a novel is constantly pointing at itself, shouting ‘Hey! Look at me. I’m a work of fiction!’ So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is postmodern, but Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land is not. Although both are in my view perfectly brilliant novels.

Thinking about attention-seeking postmodern novels with ‘novel-ness’ written all over them reminded me of that phase in food when everything was served inside itself. So cabbage was made more postmodernly cabbage-ey by being presented as soup inside a hollowed out cabbage. ‘Hi’, it drawled smugly when it got to the table. ‘Did you know that I’m 100% pure cabbage? Just look at me. I’m so damn cute.’ Mushrooms, apples, potatoes, pumpkins were made more flouncily, showily themselves by being cooked inside their own skins. I’m not really a fan of any of them – especially the cabbage. Making the hole in the cabbage both large enough for a serving of soup as well as sufficiently leak-proof, involves using such an extraordinarily large specimen that quite honestly you need to eat alone in order to have enough room at the table.

But when it comes to postmodern food, I will always make an exception. Do you remember those scooped out jelly oranges we used to have at children’s parties? Half an orange filled with orange jelly is just pure, unadulterated pleasure in my opinion. So, as a treat for postmodernists everywhere, here’s something to lift your poor, jaded spirits. But be careful – if you lift your spirits too much, you won’t be postmodern anymore.

Postmodern Lime Jelly – with stripes

I am indebted to the wonderful Bompas & Parr jelly book for advice on quantities and techniques. I would serve these jelly wedges with mojito cocktails. Why have a lime wedge when you can have a jelly wedge?

For the Clear Lime Jelly

6 limes

125ml sugar syrup – make this by bringing 125mls of water to the boil, removing from the heat and then stirring in 125g of caster sugar until it dissolves

150ml water

5 leaves gelatine

Half the 6 limes and squeeze the juice into a jug. You should have 225 ml of juice. Reserve the skins of 5 of the limes to pour the jelly into. Turn the skins inside out and then peel the pith away from the centre, until the skins are completely clean. Put them in the fridge to start chilling. This will help the setting process later.

Save the 6th lime shell for the cream jelly.

Add the water to the juice and the sugar syrup. Pour a little of the mixture over the 5 gelatine leaves which you have snipped into a heat-proof bowl. After ten minutes soaking, place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until the gelatine dissolves completely. Strain into a measuring jug.

For the Cream Lime Jelly

4 leaves gelatine

100 ml water

1 tablespoon sugar

Zest of the 6th lime

400ml full cream milk

Cut the gelatine up and place it into a heat proof bowl with the water, sugar and zest of lime. Allow it to sit for about 10 to 15 minutes and then place over a gently simmering pan until it dissolves. Add the milk and then strain it through a sieve into a measuring jug.

Here comes the slow, fiddly part. Rest the 10 chilled lime skin shells inside an egg box or the egg container in your fridge. Pour a layer of clear jelly into each shell and allow to cool for half an hour or so, or until set. Repeat the layers until the lime shells are full.

You will be left with enough of the 2 different jelly liquids to make 3 or 4 extra servings in standard moulds.

Once the jelly limes are set, slice them in half again, to reveal the stripes. Pour the mojitos, hand out the wedges and listen to Leonard Cohen.

Plums al cartoccio ….and the great vegetable debt

I’m out of vegetable debt at last. For the first time in my life I’ve grown enough of something to give it away. It may sound like nothing to those of you who only have to wink at a seed packet for vegetables to hop out and do their thing. But I’m not one of those people. Remember my miserable strawberry harvest? And my total courgette output is still stuck at one and a half. But finally, finally I have tomatoes.

The first thing I did was give the tomatoes to my neighbours who’ve been more than generous with radishes, red spring onions, rhubarb and cobnuts this year. Imagine how stunned they were to finally get something back from me when they dropped off a bag of apples this morning.

Flushed with success at finally being vegetable solvent, I also donated two plums from my total crop of eight.

The tree was given to me by friends and quite honestly I’m relieved to have coaxed anything out of it at all. I cooked the six fruit I had left in a suitably grand manner, as befits their very rare, virtually mythic status. Plums in a designer hand-bag.

Plums Al Cartoccio

Enough for 6

For the Hazelnut Biscuit Base:

50g toasted chopped hazelnuts

200g plain flour

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

I egg yolk

130 g slightly salted butter, cut into pieces

60g caster sugar

For the Plums:

9 sweet plums, halved and pitted

1 teaspoon caster sugar – use 2 if you like your puddings on the sweet side

Half teaspoon five spice powder

100ml sweet pudding wine

1 vanilla pod, halved and split

Vanilla ice-cream

‘Al cartoccio’ means ‘in a bag’ but sounds so much better. Cooking plums this way retains their shape and makes the juice extra delicious.

Combine all the ingredients for the hazelnut biscuits in an electric mixer. Once they make a dryish dough, form the mixture into a dumpy roll about 6 cm across, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for half an hour.

Put the plums in a double layer of silver foil, and bend the edges up all around to make a water-tight boat. Mix the sugar, sweet wine and five spice powder together and pour all over the plums. Add the vanilla pods to the parcel and pinch the edges together to make a leak-proof bag. Bake in the oven at 175 C for around ten minutes. Open up the bag and put back in the oven for another 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the plums to sit in the foil, with the liquid. Leave the oven on.

Slice the cold biscuit dough into 6 rounds. Don’t worry if it falls to pieces a little. Just press the biscuits back into shape with your fingers. Place the rounds on baking parchment in a tin. Cook in the oven for ten minutes so that they’re still soft to the touch. Remove the biscuits from the oven and once cool, place on individual plates with 3 plums each, a sloosh of the juice all around and a spoonful of vanilla ice cream on top. In the spirit of the designer handbag, I decided to be a little bit precious and plonk a piece of vanilla pod on top of the whole edifice. ‘Neither use nor ornament’ my Great Aunt would have said, very briskly. But I like the way it looks, so I’m prepared to take the flak.

Foolproof tomato sauce

The easyJet pilot flying us back from Pisa to Gatwick this week earned himself a medal for Tactless Things To Say When About to Leave the Runway. ‘Sorry guys, things are crowded up there….. just too many planes and not enough sky.’ Certain images should never be evoked and that was one of them.

easyJet was the only thing I didn’t enjoy about my week in Italy. I’m infatuated by everything Italian, apart from television and Silvio Berlusconi. I’ve been to Italy countless times but this year, unusually, we barely ate out at all. Italian restaurant cooking seems less good than it was while the fresh food in shops and markets is better than ever.

For an easy lunch we ate pasta with homemade tomato sauce, with either tonno e fagioli or buffalo mozzarella to start.

Foolproof Tomato Sauce

Enough for 4

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic finely chopped

2 x 400g tins of plum tomatoes (even though the sauce gets whizzed up at the end, I never buy pre-chopped tomatoes. I always imagine that they must be the mushed up bits of tomato slurry sluiced from the bottom of the tub in the canning factory).

2 good lengths of fresh rosemary – don’t be timid and don’t even think about removing the leaves or chopping them up. It makes it so much easier to hoik the rosemary out at the end

2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar – the rich, treacly variety

2 tablespoons sugar

Salt and pepper

Cook the garlic gently in the oil until soft but not brown. Add all the other ingredients, bashing the tomatoes around a bit as you go. Simmer at a slow bubble for around fifteen minutes. Remove the branches of rosemary and whizz the whole lot up with a stick blender. Eat stirred into pasta or with grilled chicken.

I have a friend who loves tomato sauce so much that he had a rubber stamp made of the recipe and printed it onto the wall by his cooker. I like the idea, but I swear I could make tomato sauce with my eyes shut. I want a rubber stamp with a recipe for osso bucco on it, but I don’t think it would fit.

Green gazpacho with borage ice

Going through security for my flight from New York to Virginia I noticed a sign that said ‘no snow-globes may be taken on this flight.’ It sounded such a fanciful idea to even think of taking a snow-globe flying that I immediately wanted to. And that got me thinking about how to make an edible snow-globe. So far the best I’ve come up with is this…. a borage ice sphere.

Admittedly it’s more like one of those hefty glass paperweights that are the mystery weapons in Agatha Christie crime novels, but I think it’s beautiful all the same. And since I was in fanciful mood I decided to pair my globe with not red but green gazpacho soup. I’ve always found the sheer bossy lividness of red gazpacho very off-putting. This green confection is coolly elegant Grace Kelly to siren fire-cracker Rita Hayworth.

Borage Ice

Simply add borage flowers (which taste of cucumber) to your favourite ice-cube mould, top up with water and freeze.

Green Gazpacho

2lbs assorted red and yellow tomatoes – just so long as they smell of summer and haven’t had their flavour annihilated in the fridge

Quarter cup gin – this idea is inspired by the chef Alex Urena. He uses vodka but I think the juniper flavour of the gin draws out the taste of the tomatoes beautifully

3 green peppers deseeded and chopped roughly

1 cucumber peeled and sliced

2 stalks of celery chopped

Handful of celery leaves

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and pepper

Fistful of coriander leaves

Serves 4

Whizz up the tomatoes and gin in a blender. Pour into a sieve lined with kitchen towel and allow to drip into a bowl in the fridge overnight. Meanwhile mix the peppers, cucumber, celery and celery leaves with the vinegars, juice, sugar and seasoning in a bowl and place this in the fridge too. The next morning chuck out the tomato that has collected in the kitchen paper. Add the clear tomato liquid, the contents of the vegetable bowl and the coriander leaves to the blender and whizz until smooth. If you like you can re-drip this through a paper-lined sieve if you want clear, green sophistication. But there’s really no need and I never do.

Add a borage sphere to your ice cold soup. Eat while imagining what your fantasy snow globe would contain.

Mad Men and English Fruit

I’ve just been to New York and Virginia where both the hospitality and the heat were off the scale. In NY one of my happiest meals was sitting in Central Park eating the most beautiful pink-blushed apricots. In Virginia I was treated to sweet, sticky pork ribs, corn and Southern-style biscuits. But like Sombrero hats and lederhosen, corn and ribs don’t travel – at least not to rain-soaked Britain they don’t. Nothing could match that perfect Virginian setting, as the sun beat down.

So this is my version of pork ribs and corn for an English climate, where hot means the tepid temperature necessary to make yoghurt. Pork belly and gooseberries….

When I wrote a while ago about the ‘truculence of pastry’ I was only really warming up for an introduction to the true god of moodiness, the gooseberry. Its bilious green demeanour, bristly exterior and the sheer impossibility of tasting its bitter flesh without wincing makes it second only to the quince in all-round trickiness. But, like the quince, treat it right and it will offer up glorious, tart flavour in a trice.

It’s been said of the British television presenter and film buff Barry Norman that his crumpled face but immaculate hair make him look as though he’s been up all night with a brush and comb. The gooseberry looks as though it’s been up all night at the bar, nursing a Jack Daniel’s and a grudge.

When it comes to the perfect partnership, the tetchy, hard-to-please gooseberry needs an avuncular, plump companion. Think of Mad Men’s brilliant but ruthless Don Draper paired with the lusciously beautiful Joan and you’ll get the picture.

Pork Belly and Gooseberry Sauce

SERVES 4

Sliced pork belly – quantities really depend on how much you want to eat, but two pieces per person is a good start

Fennel seeds – three teaspoons

Thyme – a fistful

Rosemary – two good sprigs

Olive oil – a glug or two

Garlic – three cloves, crushed

Seasoning

Preheat the oven to 200 c and tip all the ingredients into a strong polythene bag. Massage the pork around a bit. Leave to marinade for an hour or so, returning to massage the bag every now and again. Remove the pork from the bag, along with the marinade, and place in an oven dish. Cook for thirty minutes. Leave to rest for ten minutes while you make the gooseberry sauce.

Gooseberry Sauce

200g Gooseberries

Sugar – half a cup

Dash of water

Half a star anise

Seasoning

Zest of one lemon

Butter

Put all the ingredients, except the butter, into a pan and bring to a simmer. Stir until the gooseberries have collapsed and remove from the heat. Add the knob of butter, remove the star anise and that’s it. Eat in the rain and think of Virginia sunshine.