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.