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.

Luminous but not clear…

The late sum­mer heat in Vir­ginia is densely, oppress­ively humid. I wore the weather like a set of heavy, unfa­mil­iar clothes and, unused to such bru­tal tem­per­at­ures, rose at dawn in search of a calm­ing, sooth­ing breeze. Walk­ing along the river bank before the sun appeared, Nor­man Maclean’s beau­ti­fully evoc­at­ive words in A River Runs Through It floated into my mind: ‘At sun­rise everything is lumin­ous but not clear.’

The con­stant, cool­ing pres­ence of the river in Vir­ginia tem­pers even the most bru­tal of days, and the heat of the sun is mod­i­fied by the warmth of the wel­come. Home-made dough­nuts, pan­cakes, iced tea, corn hush pup­pies, pulled pork bar­be­cue — I was over­whelmed by generosity.

Like som­breros, castanets and spor­rans, South­ern pulled pork isn’t as con­vin­cing in an Oxford­shire garden as it was at the end of a dock on a Vir­ginian river. So I’ve devised my Oxford ver­sion in trib­ute to the people I met and the food that I ate with my feet trail­ing in the river and the sun beat­ing down on my head.

OXFORD PULLED PORK WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS

This is a two-part recipe. Eat it first as roast pork with crispy roast pota­toes and then eat what’s left as a pulled pork sand­wich with car­a­mel­ised onions. This is not the kind of pork that you slice effi­ciently into neat pieces. Shoulder of pork, cooked slowly, will col­lapse into deli­cious, but sham­bolic shreds and shards.

Serves 4

  • 2kg pork shoulder, bone still in (I’ve tried it without the bone and it’s nowhere near so good)
  • 2 tea­spoons fen­nel seed
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 sticks celery
  • 2 leeks
  • 2 onions
  • Large hand­ful of fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 head garlic
  • season­ing
  • Half bottle white wine
  • Red­cur­rant jelly
  • Bal­samic vinegar
  • Half litre veget­able stock

Pre­heat the oven to 220 degrees C. Rub the skin of the pork shoulder with salt and place it in a metal bak­ing tray that’s only just a little lar­ger than the meat. If you use a tin that’s too large, the veget­ables you place in it later will burn.

Cook for 30 minutes, to allow the skin to start crisp­ing up. Remove from the oven, turn­ing the heat down to 150 degrees C at the same time. Allow the meat to cool for a couple of minutes and then remove tem­por­ar­ily from the tin. Build up a mat­tress of car­rots, cel­ery, leeks, fen­nel seeds, bay leaves, onions and gar­lic in the same tin, top­ping the pile with the fresh thyme. Place the meat on top of the mat­tress. Pour in the white wine and put the tin back in the cooler oven. Cook gently for around four hours, top­ping up the liquid with water, if the tin starts to dry out and the veget­ables to burn. You may need to cover it with tin foil dur­ing cook­ing, if there’s a risk of burning.

Remove the pork and make a jus with the juices in the pan. Care­fully spoon off any fat, but keep the veget­ables in the tin. With the tin on the hob, stir in a little more white wine to deglaze it. Add the veget­able stock, red­cur­rant jelly and bal­samic vin­egar and bubble up. Check the season­ing and strain the jus into a jug.

Serve with roast pota­toes, the crack­ling, spin­ach and steamed cour­gettes. Try to make sure you save enough pork for the fol­low­ing day.

NEXT-DAY PULLED PORK SANDWICH WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS.

Car­a­mel­ised Onions — makes 2 to 3 servings

  • 2 white onions
  • 1 tea­spoon fen­nel seeds
  • Half tea­spoon crushed cori­ander seeds
  • Half tea­spoon sugar
  • Olive oil
  • Season­ing
  • Black­berry vinegar

Finely slice the onions. Place in a small pan the olive oil, fen­nel seeds, crushed cori­ander seeds, sugar, salt and black pep­per. Cook as gently as you can man­age for around an hour. If the onions start to catch, add a little water. When the onions have col­lapsed and melted, remove from the heat and add two tea­spoons of black­berry vin­egar. The vin­egar, which adds a fruity sharp­ness, is also a ges­ture to South­ern pulled pork, which has vin­egar stirred into it.

Warm through some rus­tic rolls, pile in a heap of peashoots and salad leaves dressed with lemon vinai­grette, fol­lowed by a mound of warmed pulled pork and a spoon­ful of car­a­mel­ised onions.

Nor­man Maclean, whose writ­ing has a beau­ti­ful bal­ance and heft to it, had a mar­vel­lous sense of the moment. He under­stood that some frag­ment­ary shreds of time have more lumin­os­ity to them than oth­ers. Eat­ing pulled pork as the river trailed past me was one of those moments when ‘life… becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remem­ber, and often enough so that what we even­tu­ally come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going side­ways, back­wards, for­ward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable.’

That day, life did indeed become lit­er­at­ure. But the sun rises too soon by the river bank in Vir­ginia. The lilac light eases into pink and a blue heron rises into the sky. It’s time to renew the war of attri­tion with the sun once again.

Review: The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Pub­lished by Bloomsbury

Septem­ber 2012 — Price £35.00

When Paula Wolfert states unashamedly that her book is full of ‘pre­vi­ously uncol­lec­ted’ recipes rather than brand new ones, you know you’re in the hands of an expert. The Food of Morocco is the res­ult of Paula’s fifty years of research and, rather than fea­tur­ing showy twists and fancy trills on his­toric recipes or start­ling com­bin­a­tions of tra­di­tional ingredi­ents, it’s a glor­i­ous and exhaust­ive com­pen­dium of centuries-old Moroc­can cooking. To give you an idea of its heft, it was delivered to me, not in a pad­ded envel­ope, but in a large card­board box.

I doubt I’ll ever get through all her recipes — in fact, I fully intend to avoid some of them. Spiced Brain Salad with Pre­served Lem­ons or Liver and Olive Salad, sound ter­ri­fy­ing. I will how­ever, be try­ing the ingeni­ous recipe for warqa pastry, which comes with pen and ink draw­ings to explain the method.

As a long-time fan of the writ­ing of Paul Bowles, I can’t wait to make the recipe for Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Almonds in the Style of the Rif Moun­tains. Wolfert heard about the dish from mem­bers of the ‘Tangier lit­er­ary set’. The Moroc­can writer Mohammed Mra­bet had cooked it for them, but des­pite all their attempts to describe it to her, Wolfert couldn’t get the recipe right. ‘Finally Paul Bowles, who had dis­covered and trans­lated Mra­bet, recalled the meas­ure­ments for me from memory’. A recipe whose labyrinth­ine path took it from Tangier, via Mra­bet, trans­lated by the great Paul Bowles, is as appeal­ing to me as any­thing I’ve ever cooked in my life.

As the owner of three slightly unpre­dict­able quince trees, I’m delighted to find a book with so many quince recipes. Chicken with Car­a­mel­ised Quinces and Toasted Wal­nuts sounds and looks exquis­ite, as does Lamb Tagine with Quinces from Mar­rakech. Wolfert’s stun­ning col­lec­tion also includes an Avo­cado and Date Milk Shake, which is worth try­ing for its oddity alone. I intend to cook from this book for years.

The Food of Morocco radi­ates integ­rity, schol­ar­ship and expert­ise. It shim­mers with Wolfert’s pas­sion for her sub­ject. It’s so detailed that it should really be turned into a PhD thesis, but it also has a huge sense of romance and fun. When read­ing a book for the first time, I always look at the acknow­ledge­ments page. Authors often reveal their true char­ac­ters when they thank — or don’t thank — those that have helped them. Any writer who pays a spe­cial trib­ute to ‘the snail wran­glers of Sonoma and Napa’ — a group of Wolfert’s friends who attemp­ted to col­lect enough snails for her to make Mar­rakech Snail Soup — is ok by me. The soup may have been dis­astrous, but the exper­i­ence was a tri­umph — in other words, it demon­strates the per­fect atti­tude to life. Just because some­thing doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.