Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot

 

 It can be useful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sitting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, imagining his frustration at having his experimental novels widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfortunates, published in 1969,  involves permutations – so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole afternoon to work out the number.

The Unfortunates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere paragraph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full version in a lifetime, however precociously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved experiment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the linear restrictions of the conventional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfortunates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disingenuous instruction that ‘if readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading’. I’ve calculated all the possible permutations of those twenty five interchangeable chapters and the number I’m left with is:

15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000

which is otherwise known as fifteen septillion, five hundred and eleven sextillion, two hundred and ten quintillion, forty three quadrillion, three hundred and thirty trillion, nine hundred and eighty five billion, nine hundred and eighty four million different possibilities. You can never hope to read them all and it’s possible that the version you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a different angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘understand without generalisation, to see each piece of received truth, or generalisation, as true only if is true for me’. To generalise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthusiastic about avoiding generalisations while embracing the extraordinary possibilities thrown up by permutations, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beetroot in vinegar, crumbly Lancashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with butter so thick that she could take an impression of her teeth from the indentations they left, and a mug of tea the colour of an old penny. By calculating the permutations, I made a beetroot salad for lunch today that is both specifically Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a variation on her theme.

BEETROOT, GOAT’S CURD AND WALNUT SALAD WITH MAPLE DRESSING

  • Bunch of smallish raw beetroot (bigger than snooker, smaller than hockey), leaves still attached – around one per person
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Handful of walnuts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Maple syrup

Cut the leaves and roots off the beetroot. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beetroot, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil parcel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beetroot and arrange on a plate with spoonfuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beetroot leaves and scatter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the walnuts and a scattering of chives. Make a dressing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup – four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Season to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad outside, sitting in someone’s else’s seat and staring at someone else’s view.

I imagine that B. S. Johnson would have been a good lunch companion. Sadly, he lost heart,  gave up on his ignored experiments and committed suicide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treasure it too.

 

 

Just How Pink Can You Get?

It’s easier to see how brilliant Charles Dickens is by reading a lesser rival. Just as it’s simpler to appreciate home by going away, silence by listening to Sir Paul McCartney and freshly caught fish by eating tinned tuna. For that reason here are some pink/crimson/red things eaten and enjoyed in my house in the past couple of days. All of them were delightful, but none comes close in startling pinkness to what I have in store for you in a moment.

Maybe the beetroot gave the game away. I’ve just made searingly pink beetroot-cured gravadlax which takes the pinkometer into new zones on the dial. As the Mayor of London Boris Johnson might have said, ‘pink-omania is about to go zoink.’

BEETROOT CURED GRAVADLAX

There are various combinations of ingredients that work well, but this is how I like it best:

  • 600 – 700g salmon fillet
  • 300g raw beetroot, peeled and roughly grated
  • 100g sea salt flakes
  • 90g sugar
  • A few turns of freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated horseradish – about 40g
  • 1 bunch of dill, chopped
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 50ml gin

You can leave the skin on, or remove it. It’s really up to you. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Tip half the beetroot mixture onto an oval plate just a little bit bigger than the fish and then place the salmon on top, making sure the underside is completely covered. A plastic container would also work, although you may find it difficult to remove the pink stains later! Use the remaining beetroot mixture to cover the top of the fish. Cover the whole lot with a double layer of cling film and place weights on the top – I use another plate with a few tins stacked on it. Put the fish in the fridge and after 24 hours it will be ready. Wash off all the curing ingredients, pat the fish dry and then slice and eat. I like to serve it with a little thick natural yoghurt into which I’ve grated some more fresh horseradish, along with some salt and pepper.

It will keep in the fridge, covered, for around a week.

 

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remember my grandpa announcing proudly that he’d decorated the walls of his small front room with four wildly different wallpapers and picked out the woodwork in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition is vast and overwhelming and throbs with wild colours and patterns. It’s generous, showy and utterly independent in spirit and yet it’s meticulous and somehow dogged too – qualities that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walking through Oxford’s University Parks later that day, I felt somehow let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turning 180 degrees so that the sun was shining on the trunks, the colours jumped into life. I got a whole new perspective. And if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hockney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eating a riot of colour. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice – full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yellow beetroots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Wholefoods, along with a silver foil hickory smoker from Finland for £2.29.

I have a disastrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evacuate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey flavour, this bag will disappoint you. But for a delicate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evacuation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Blackberry vinegar – I bought mine from Womersley Foods
  • 1 disposable foil smoker – bought from Wholefoods for £2.29

Wash the beetroot, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beetroot, onions, whole head of garlic and thyme in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a further 45 minutes. Remove the package from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting open the foil. Peel the beetroot and slice into thinnish circles.

Make a salad dressing from a little olive oil, blackberry vinegar and seasoning and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beetroot, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the balsamic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of baking, the garlic will be rich, sweet and unctuous – perfect when spread on a little sourdough bread.

 I ate my riotous salad and bread with beetroot soup that I made by baking beetroots and apples for an hour and blending with vegetable stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his colour schemes but exceptionally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.

Black garlic – fashion faux pas or design classic

It amuses me to see fashion stores from Zara to Benetton to Topshop packed with rails of military capes this season. How did the cape survive its first outing, let alone get resurrected? I remember pleading for one as a teenager, along with a pair of white pull-on wet-look knee-length boots. I eventually got the cape – still waiting for the boots.

The first thing I learned about wearing a cape is that the restrictive slits give you instant Dalek-arms. In fact, the whole silhouette is startlingly Dalek-like. So, no, I won’t be buying a cape this time round.

The food equivalent of the over-rated cape has to be foam. To my mind, eating foam is no tastier than lying on the beach, swilling the frothy water’s edge around your palate like a whale sieving plankton. I’m not 100% convinced by anything ‘en croute’ either, since it’s little more than a posh pie with a swanky name.

I’ve just been to a food fair and I bought what was described as ‘the next big thing in food’. It’s black garlic – standard white garlic fermented for three weeks and dried for another week. Black garlic tastes like liquorice crossed with raisins with a back flavour of cooked garlic. It has a consistency that reminds me of chestnuts or even fruit pastilles. It’s reputed to have none of that fierce, pungent aftertaste that lingers. My daughter ate a whole clove and pronounced it to be like ‘eating a candy’. And it turns out the manufacturers are telling the truth – there’s absolutely no lingering.

But is black garlic just a military cape in disguise, or is it pure Chanel – elegant, timeless and exquisite?

This was my fashion experiment…..

The Recipe: Beetroot and Black Garlic Bruschetta With Goat’s Cheese and Walnuts

Enough for 4

1 beetroot

4 slices sourdough bread, toasted

8 cloves black garlic

150g goat’s cheese – the soft, creamy kind

Balsamic vinegar – the syrupy kind

Handful of chives

Handful of walnuts broken up with your hands

Cut the stalk off the beetroot and place in a pan of simmering water. Boil for half an hour or until tender. Remove from the water and once cool enough to handle, peel the outer skin off. Slice the beetroot and put to one side while you toast the sourdough bread.

Rub one clove of black garlic onto each slice of toasted bread. It will disintegrate as you rub it in. Spread each toast with the goat’s cheese followed by the beetroot. Slice the remaining four cloves of black garlic and heap onto the beetroot. Add the walnuts, a trickle of balsamic and a drift of chopped chives.

The Verdict

I would definitely buy black garlic again and I would certainly prepare it like this again. It’s still not quite Chanel, but Chanel wasn’t Chanel in the beginning.