Looking Up, Looking Down

Bril­liant con­cepts are often described in ris­ible ways: ‘push the envel­ope’, ‘wake up and smell the cof­fee’, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’, ‘let’s make a plan going for­ward’ and ‘blue-sky-thinking’. I aim to do all of those things most of the time, but never, ever will you get me to use any of those phrases. Take ‘blue-sky-thinking’ for example: the notion of devis­ing cre­at­ive ideas that are unfettered by the mundane or the ped­es­trian. The concept is per­fect, but the cliche-ridden pack­aging kills it stone dead. But then it struck me that per­haps ‘blue-sky-thinking’ would be bet­ter if I rever­ted to tak­ing it lit­er­ally rather than meta­phor­ic­ally. Lying on a forest floor and star­ing up through the can­opy of trees at the blue, wintry sky bey­ond is as good a way of think­ing new things as any and it cer­tainly took some of the sting out of the cliche.

To be abso­lutely truth­ful, the idea that came to me while I looked up through the can­opy of leaves wasn’t exactly revolu­tion­ary. All I kept think­ing as I stared up at the sky was that look­ing up is the same as look­ing down — it’s the simple action of tak­ing a dif­fer­ent view­point that counts. To prove my the­ory, I’ve been star­ing down into a pot of home-made orange curd to see what inspir­a­tion might come. My orange-pot-thinking pro­duced two and a half decent ideas — I will tell you about them in my next post. In the mean­time, here’s my recipe for orange curd to help you with a little orange-pot-thinking of your own.

ORANGE CURD

Makes four or five 200ml jars

  • 4 large oranges — finely grated zest and juice
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 300g unsalted but­ter, chopped
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 3 extra yolks, beaten

Add the but­ter, sugar, lemon juice, orange zest and orange juice to a pan and heat gently until the but­ter has melted. Pour the mix­ture into a heat­proof bowl and place above a plan of sim­mer­ing water. Strain the eggs into the mix­ture and stir con­stantly until everything is com­bined. It will then take at least an hour to thicken. Stir it fre­quently and do not allow it to get too hot — it will sep­ar­ate if you do. If you’re cau­tious with the heat, the thick­en­ing will take longer, but you will avoid calam­ity. Once the mix­ture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, pour it into the ster­il­ised jars and cover with a circle of greased paper. It will keep for around 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge.

P.S. I have used the phrase ‘orange-pot-thinking’ three times in this post. It is now offi­cially a cliche and I prom­ise never to use it again — unless, of course, literally.

Back to Front Vintage Rice with Pomegranate

Research­ers have been por­ing over not the front but the back of the Bayeux tapestry, to prove that it wasn’t woven by dif­fer­ent teams of nuns in sev­eral sep­ar­ate pieces, but by the same group of people in one long length. After all, the back of a work of art says as much about its cre­ator as the front.

My Great Auntie Susie loved sew­ing, knit­ting and crochet of all kinds. But when I took her to the Vic­toria & Albert Museum to see the work of the great tapestry artist Kaffe Fas­sett, she had abso­lutely no interest at all in the beau­ti­ful artistry on dis­play. ‘I want to see the sew­ings’, she kept repeat­ing crossly. ‘I don’t want to see the front. I want to see the back.’ Her meas­ure of real crafts­man­ship was how beau­ti­fully Kaffe Fas­sett had fin­ished off his threads at the back of the can­vas. Sev­eral times, she tried to creep behind a dis­play to peer at the neat­ness of the ‘sew­ings’ and each time we were warned not to get too close. Finally, she could bear it no longer; she grabbed one of the canvases and lif­ted it up to get a bet­ter look. We were politely asked to leave, but not before she pro­claimed that, accord­ing to her stand­ards, Fas­sett had done a good job.

I love the work­ings of an object: the half-finished paint­ing with pen­cil marks show­ing through, the hand-thrown pot with the indent­a­tion of a thum­b­print or the drag of a fin­ger­nail. I even love the sound of an orches­tra as it tunes-up before a con­cert. It lays itself bare in all its ragged, dis­cord­ant imper­fec­tion, like a host­ess before the party starts, dressed in posh frock and high heels but hair still in curl­ers. An orches­tra tuning-up always makes me think of the great sitar player Ravi Shankar at the Con­cert for Bangladesh in 1971. ‘Thank you’, he said testily, as he fin­ished his pre­par­a­tions and the audi­ence star­ted to applaud. ‘If you appre­ci­ate the tuning-up so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the play­ing more.’

This is a dish in which all the sew­ings, the work­ings, the ingredi­ents and the method are laid bare. There’s no con­ceal­ment, no obfus­ca­tion, no trick­ery. It’s pure, simple, hon­est and above all deli­cious and every com­pon­ent can be seen clearly. And yet there is a mys­tery; the taste of the rice. It may look like per­fectly stand­ard bas­mati rice. But this is vin­tage bas­mati rice. Like Stra­di­vari viol­ins, the best har­vests of bas­mati rice become finer over time. This par­tic­u­lar Tilda vin­tage is from 2006 and the dif­fer­ence was appar­ent as soon as I bur­ied my nose in the packet. It has a stronger, more toasted aroma and the fla­vour, when cooked, is both nutty and del­ic­ate. It seemed cruel to plonk some­thing on top of it; hence my back to front rice salad that is both refresh­ing and refined and in which the rice is the star.

Back to Front Vin­tage Rice Salad

Serves 4

  • 40g of vin­tage bas­mati rice per person
  • 1 cucum­ber, peeled and cubed
  • 8 spring onions, finely sliced
  • Large hand­fuls of fresh flat leaf pars­ley, cori­ander and mint, chopped
  • Seeds of 3 pomegranates
  • 4 table­spoons clear rice vinegar
  • 4 level tea­spoons caster sugar
  • Salt and black pepper

I tried two dif­fer­ent meth­ods to cook the rice: first, soak­ing it in a bowl of cold water for half an hour before cook­ing it in a small amount of water with the lid on. My second method was to simply rinse the rice well and then sim­mer it very gently in an open pan. The second method pro­duced a more dis­tinct tex­ture and bet­ter sep­ar­ated grains.

When the rice is cool, add the herbs, cucum­ber, spring onions and seeds. Mix the vin­egar with the sugar and season­ing and then pour over the rice, stir­ring to coat it well.

This salad, with its zingy, sharp dress­ing, is per­fect with grilled sal­mon. It’s a dish that my Great Auntie Susie would have approved of, given that it reveals its ‘sew­ings’ so clearly and hon­estly. And she adored pomegranates. She would pull them apart and spear the seeds with a dressmaker’s pin from her sew­ing box. And so the post about the back to front salad that star­ted with the stitch­ing of the Bayeux tapestry comes full circle. It ends with a pin.

Post Hoc

In the gal­van­ising spirit of New Year optim­ism, I set myself an arbit­rary chal­lenge. These are my inven­ted rules: shut eyes, pull book from shelves — it turns out to be The Dic­tion­ary of Dif­fi­cult Words - slap right index fin­ger down some­where on ran­dom page. Whichever word or phrase I land on will provide the mater­ial for both some­thing to eat and a semi-coherent set of ideas. And the phrase is, hon­est truth.….. post hoc, ergo prop­ter hoc.

I don’t like to admit defeat, so here we go. The mean­ing of post hoc, ergo prop­ter hoc is ‘a phrase to point up the error in logic of con­fus­ing sequence with con­sequence.’ The lit­eral trans­la­tion, in case you’re slightly baffled is: don’t be daft enough to think that just because it happened after this, that it happened because of this.

The phrase is designed to detach what hap­pens from the events that lead up to the event. I don’t want to sound smug, but I think I’ve found a way round the argu­ment. I’ve just been to Aus­tria and when I came home, post hoc, I made the sweet Aus­trian del­ic­acy of Kais­er­schmarrn. But if I hadn’t been to Aus­tria where I was told about the recipe by my god­son Arthur, I would never have made Kais­er­schmarrn because I would never have heard of it. If that’s not a solid case of iden­ti­fi­able and jus­ti­fi­able prop­ter hoc, I don’t know what is.

And if an Aus­trian winter tree smothered with snow doesn’t inev­it­ably come after an autumn tree covered with leaves, and isn’t fol­lowed by a massive stack of fire­wood, then I’ll eat my thermal vest.

Kais­er­schmarrn, with its over-generous sup­ply of con­son­ants, should, of course, be in The Dic­tion­ary of Dif­fi­cult Words itself. It appar­ently means The Emperor’s Muddle, although no-one knows pre­cisely why. Essen­tially, it’s a sweet pan­cake, but it’s cut up into little squares in the pan as it cooks. That way the chef makes enough for six people at once, rather than stand­ing for­lornly at the stove mak­ing one pan­cake at a time and los­ing the will to keep going after pan­cake num­ber three.

KAISERSCHMARRN

  • 60 g but­ter
  • 4 eggs
  • 100 g flour
  • 150 ml full cream milk
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Pinch salt
  • Hand­ful sultanas
  • 75 g caster sugar
  • Sprink­ling of caster sugar

Whisk the eggs until frothy. Sieve the flour into the milk and whisk in as much air as pos­sible before adding the salt, lemon zest and eggs. The bat­ter will be the con­sist­ency of double cream. Melt 30 g of but­ter in a fry­ing pan on a low to medium heat. Pour the bat­ter into the pan and allow to cook for a minute or so until brown on the bot­tom. Scat­ter the sul­tanas over the pan­cake and then turn over using two spat­u­las. With a wooden or plastic spoon, and while the pan­cake is still in the pan, slice it across and down into small squares. Melt the remain­ing but­ter and caster sugar into the pan and stir it around so that everything is coated. Tip the squares out onto a plate and dust with icing sugar. Serve with fruit com­pote of whichever kind you like best. 

Post the pan­cake you will be happy. Prop­ter, Kais­er­schmarrn is good. Ergo, Arthur deserves a lifetime’s supply.

Fresh Wasabi Versus The Weary Adverb

This is an ode to sim­pli­city — in part a trib­ute to fresh was­abi, and in part a war against the adverb. One is pure, intense and noth­ing but its own glor­i­ous self. The other is flouncy, florid and dilutes everything it attaches itself to. The adverbs I’ve got it in for go like this: I’m truly, hon­estly sorry — as opposed to dis­hon­estly sorry? I’m act­ively engaged in this task — how else could you be? I’m excep­tion­ally busy — busy is busy, after all and to add the adverb is to boast.

In the spirit of sim­pli­city, pur­ity and all-round reduct­ive delight­ful­ness, fresh was­abi is the culin­ary anti­thesis of adverbial. I’ve just been sent a gnarled, green root of fresh was­abi from The Was­abi Com­pany, grown, bizar­rely, in my favour­ite county of Dor­set. Its looks are against it — it resembles the index fin­ger of an aged warlock’s hand. But peel it and grate it, and it’s a revelation.

Com­mer­cial was­abi mixed up from powder, or the little khaki green blobs of was­abi that come with pre-packed sushi, usu­ally con­tain only 5 to 10% actual was­abi. The dif­fer­ence in fla­vour that comes from the fresh root is remark­able — like a full orches­tra play­ing Bach, com­pared to My Old Man’s a Dust­man per­formed on a kazoo. The taste of freshly grated was­abi plays all over the tongue and has a del­ic­ate per­fume to it, as well as all the usual nose-twanging, mouth-tingling, throat-sizzling effects that you would expect.

For the nerdy amongst us, there’s the added appeal of the little tools that are needed to turn Gandalf’s digits into pale green deli­cious­ness. There’s the grind­ing, the brush­ing, the heap­ing into chartreuse-coloured mounds on a plate. I can think of few other ingredi­ents that are so simply and per­fectly them­selves. It needs no glit­ter, no tin­sel, and cer­tainly no adverbs to be just itself. And at this time of year, when glit­ter and adverbs are slosh­ing around all over the place, that pur­ity is some­thing to celebrate.

The Complete Nose to Tail

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Com­plete Nose to Tail: A Kind of Brit­ish Cooking

by Fer­gus Hende­r­son and Justin Piers Gellatly

Pub­lished by Blooms­bury — £30.00

Pho­to­graph of Pea and Pig’s Ear Soup by Jason Lowe

Fer­gus Hende­r­son writes about food in the way that Beat­rix Pot­ter wrote about rab­bits; his ingredi­ents have their own perky, slightly wil­ful per­son­al­it­ies. His quirkily anthro­po­morphic approach means that the ‘dis­cip­lin­ing of veget­ables is not to be taken lightly’, food needs con­trolling so it doesn’t ‘mis­be­have’, ingredi­ents should ‘get to know each other’, and nettles must be sieved to ‘spir­itu­ally defeat’ them. Not that this is a cute or win­some book in any way. Its ingredi­ents and its ethos are too charm­ingly bru­tal for that, with recipes con­tain­ing instruc­tions such as ‘with the tex­tural side turned inwards, find part of the stom­ach with no holes in it’ and ‘open the pig’s jaw and pull out the tongue’.

The Com­plete Nose to Tail brings together all Fer­gus Henderson’s recipes in one vast volume. The pho­to­graphy is suit­ably eccent­ric, at times even fright­en­ing; images of a pig’s head being shaved with a dis­pos­able razor, an escapee from a Mag­ritte paint­ing shield­ing him­self from showers of brains, as well as the com­plete inner organs of an unnamed beast dangling down the front of a chef’s chest. There’s shock value in some of the recipes too, espe­cially if Calf’s Brain Ter­rine or Duck’s Hearts on Toast are your idea of hor­ror movies. But there’s a coher­ence to this book, an ideo­lo­gical pur­ity that argues that noth­ing should be wasted and everything should, if pos­sible, be enjoyed.

The prose reads as though it’s been trans­lated from the Latin, with much revers­ing of verbs and nouns for emphasis. (That’s a huge com­pli­ment, by the way, in case you’re won­der­ing.) I like the way Fer­gus Hende­r­son writes very much and admire his refusal to resort to the impov­er­ished lex­icon of lesser food writers. His ethos of using the whole beast in his cook­ing extends to an insist­ence on using the whole vocab­u­lary in his writ­ing. His gen­eral shuff­ling about of nouns and objects means that Grilled, Mar­in­ated Calf’s Heart isn’t just a good dish, it’s a ‘won­der­fully, simple, deli­cious dish, the heart not, as you might ima­gine, tough as old boots due to all the work it does, but in fact firm and meaty but giving.’

I’ve never met Fer­gus Hende­r­son but whenever I see pho­to­graphs of his jaunty, pink cheeks and cir­cu­lar spec­tacles, I think what good com­pany he looks. If ever there was an advert for the advant­ages of eat­ing everything, he would be it. No doubt the med­ical pro­fes­sion would swoon in hor­ror at the thought of so much fat, car­til­age, flesh and bone being chomped, guzzled and slurped, but Fer­gus Hende­r­son cer­tainly makes it look fun.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Pan of Spelt?

This is a story of tri­umph against the odds; an account of a mod­est recipe and a tale of tower­ing tal­ent. Both the recipe and the per­son made infin­itely less fuss than most, and yet achieved so much more. The recipe is Pump­kin Spelt Risotto, the per­fect food for Autumn days. The per­son is Sophie Germain.

The math­em­at­ical quest to prove Fermat’s Last The­orem defeated us for more than 350 years. To put it per­haps ludicrously simply, the the­orem stated that while the equa­tion a² + b² = c² works just fine, the equa­tion a³ + b³ = c³ , or any power greater, can­not be sat­is­fied. One of those whose work proved cru­cial in prov­ing Fer­mat right, was the French math­em­atician Sophie Ger­main, born in 1776. The fact that she learned Math­em­at­ics at all is a small mir­acle. As a child, she so craved to learn that she taught her­self Latin and Greek in order to be able to read the works of Sir Isaac New­ton and Leon­hard Euler in her father’s lib­rary. Her par­ents were appalled by her desire to learn. At night they banned her from hav­ing either warm clothes or a fire in her room, think­ing the cold and dark would stop any illi­cit study­ing. But, determ­ined to learn, she wrapped her­self in quilts and worked by the light of a candle.

It’s prob­ably no sur­prise to hear that Ger­main was banned from attend­ing uni­ver­sity too. Her solu­tion was to take a male pseud­onym and to send in writ­ten notes to one of the lec­tur­ers. Dur­ing her life­time, Sophie Ger­main received little recog­ni­tion for her work. The con­sensus was that she lacked the rigour needed to be truly bril­liant. The rigour would, of course, have come with formal edu­ca­tion, an edu­ca­tion her crit­ics and detract­ors had denied her.

To come back to earth with not so much a bump as a deaf­en­ing crunch, I was listen­ing to a radio pro­gramme about Fer­mat and Sophie Ger­main, while stir­ring a pan of spelt risotto. Sophie deserves bet­ter poetry than ‘shall I com­pare thee to a pan of spelt’, but I’m afraid the allu­sion has stuck in my mind. Spelt risotto needs none of the nur­tur­ing, cajol­ing and flat­ter­ing that its posh cousin rice demands. Just like Sophie Ger­main, spelt risotto sorts itself out, gets on with the job and in the end is both tri­umphant and massively under-rated. So at a time when edu­ca­tion for girls is still, tra­gic­ally, a polit­ical and ideo­lo­gical battle­ground, let’s pay trib­ute to Sophie Ger­main and all those women who came before and after.

Pump­kin and Spelt Risotto

Serves 4

  • I small sugar pump­kin (around 2kg in weight, uncut)
  • I car­rot
  • I stick celery
  • I medium yel­low onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Hand­ful thyme leaves
  • 3 table­spoons extra vir­gin olive oil
  • season­ing
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 250g pearled spelt
  • 1.5 litres veget­able stock
  • Scat­ter­ing of freshly grated parmesan
  • Large knob butter
  • Fresh tar­ragon

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Don’t bother to peel the pump­kin. simply cut into smallish chunks, remove the seeds and place in a metal bak­ing tray. I should say that I tried this recipe with both Crown Prince squash and with Har­le­quin squash. I advise you not to bother. This recipe needs the melt­ing, vibrant, sweet tex­ture and taste of a stand­ard sugar pump­kin. Sea­son the cut pieces with salt and black pep­per and brush with olive oil over all the cut sur­faces. Bake for half an hour until soft and slightly caramelised.

Chop the gar­lic, cel­ery, car­rot and onion as finely as you can man­age. The idea is to cook with a little olive oil and season­ing at a low to medium heat for half an hour, so that the veget­ables are soft, melt­ing and tend­ing towards the car­a­mel­ised. The pale, demure trans­lu­cency of onions deman­ded by a clas­sic risotto is not what you’re aim­ing for here. The clas­sic veget­able base of cel­ery, car­rot and onion is called sofritto — lit­er­ally, ‘under-fried’. But I don’t like either the word or the concept, so I’d rather call it a mélange or a muddle instead. 

When the pump­kin flesh is soft and sweet, remove the tray from the oven and put it on one side while the pump­kin cools.

Tip the spelt into the veget­able mélange. Stir it around so that the grains are coated and then add 500 mls of stock into the pan. Unlike a clas­sic risotto, you don’t need to add ladle­fuls of hot stock a little at a time. A full 500 mls of stock — hot or cold — is abso­lutely fine. Neither does spelt need the care­ful nurs­ing and nur­tur­ing of risotto, being far less tem­pera­mental and highly strung. Add the rest, as you need it.

The spelt takes around half an hour to cook. Ten minutes before it’s done, add the pump­kin flesh, using a spoon to scoop it out of the skin.

Just before serving, add a large knob of but­ter, some grated parmesan and a scat­ter­ing of chopped tar­ragon. Any leftovers heat up very well the next day, with a little extra stock added if necessary.

Eat while study­ing Fermat’s Last The­orem. If it makes sense, con­grat­u­late your­self. If it doesn’t, eat your spelt risotto while mar­vel­ling even more at Sophie Ger­main. Not only did she teach her­self Latin and Greek in order to then teach her­self Math­em­at­ics, she endured ridicule and mock­ery for her endeavours.

Tea with Diana Henry

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry

Pub­lished by Mitchell Beazley

Septem­ber 2012 - £20.00

The worst party invit­a­tion I’ve ever been sent said: ‘Come to a Pimm’s Party in Regent’s Park. Please bring Pimm’s, cucum­ber and lem­on­ade. We will provide ice and paper cups.’ It was alien in every way to the invit­a­tion I’ve just received to have tea at food writer Diana Henry’s house. I now under­stand the true mean­ing of the phrase ‘what a spread’. Diana’s exquis­ite tea staged a pro­pri­et­or­ial land-grab for the table, spread­ing from north to south and east to west. Now I come to think of it, I have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the phrase ‘High tea’ too. Diana’s tea was lofty in all the best ways — gen­er­ous in spirit, high on cal­or­ies and monu­mental in scale. I was torn between pho­to­graph­ing my tea and tuck­ing in to it, but as you can see, good man­ners pre­vailed and I cap­tured it on cam­era first.

The tea, to mark the pub­lic­a­tion of Diana’s new book on pre­serving and cur­ing, Salt Sugar Smoke, fea­tured many of her new recipes: per­fumed fig and pomegranate jam, home-cured gravad­lax, an exquis­ite crispy salad of apples and onions mar­in­ated in rice wine vin­egar, pas­sion fruit curd sponge cake and white­cur­rant jelly.

Many books on pre­serving are too hearty and briskly effi­cient for my taste. I like a little poetry with my pec­tin and Diana Henry provides it. Salt Sugar Smoke com­bines both supreme prac­tic­al­ity with a cre­at­ive ima­gin­a­tion — rather like Diana Henry her­self. This is a book that will teach you how to get the per­fect set on your jam, while remind­ing you of Simone de Beauvoir’s won­der­ful evoc­a­tion of the art of jam-making: ‘…the house­wife has caught dur­a­tion in the snare of sugar, she has enclosed life in jars.’

I left Diana’s house with chubby cheeks and a grin. Not only had I eaten one of the best teas of my life, I’d had one of Diana’s cheer­ing pep talks about life and jam. This woman and her books should be made avail­able on the NHS.