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.