Tea with Diana Henry

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

 

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.

 

Aggregating Marginal Gains

I’ve just got back from a fascinating trip to Scotland. Amongst other things, it involved stumbling around in a forest in the rain with a woolly scarf tied round my eyes so  that I could learn how to describe the texture and scent of sodden trees without turning to tired old visual metaphors. I was also able to start using  my new favourite phrase.

‘Aggregate the marginal gains’ is the phrase coined by British Cycling’s Performance Director Dave Brailsford to define why Bradley Wiggins and his fellow GB cyclists put in such astonishing performances at Le Tour de France and in the Olympic Velodrome. In other words, take a pinch of enhanced helmet technology, a dash of improved diet, a scattering of better bike frames and a twist of new sports psychology; add them all up and in combination those minuscule improvements, those ‘marginal gains’ will add up to more than the sum of their parts. it’s perfect for anyone other than the Usain Bolts of this world, for whom tiny improvements in performance are utterly pointless.

In that damp Scottish forest, wearing a blindfold and tripping over my boot laces, my marginal gains were as follows: I didn’t break my leg, I learned that Scottish midges are ferocious and I discovered previously unthought of vocabulary for describing knobbly tree bark.

Now that I’ve started living by MGM – the marginal gains mantra – I’ve started applying it to everything. Including dinner. Take, for example, my previous post about beetroot-cured gravadlax. Delicious though it is, a full 700g of bright red fish turned out to be more than I really wanted to eat. So, aggregating my marginal gains, I turned my left-over Scottish salmon into something altogether new. It became dinner for six people at a cost of about £1 per head. If I keep on aggregating my marginal gains like this, who knows what could happen?

BEETROOT-CURED GRAVADLAX BAKED WITH SPINACH, CHEDDAR AND CREAMY CHEESE SAUCE

Cooked gravadlax may sound perverse, but trust me, it’s fantastic. It’s hard to be precise about quantities, because it depends on how much gravadlax you have left over. This, however, is the method and you can simply vary the quantities according to how many are coming for dinner.

Boil some peeled, floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper. When just about done, but not overcooked, cut them into thickish slices. Layer the potatoes in an oven-proof dish, followed by a layer of very finely sliced raw onions. If you don’t slice them very finely, they won’t have time to cook properly. Next, add a scattering of sliced gravadlax and then a layer of wilted and well drained spinach. Repeat the potato, onion and gravadlax combination and end with a final layer of potatoes. Make a roux with butter and flour and then whisk in enough hot milk to make a smooth, silky sauce. Add a little grated cheese, season with salt and pepper and add a bay leaf. Pour the sauce over the layers so that it seeps down to the bottom of dish and just coats the top layer of potato. Sprinkle a good handful of grated cheddar cheese on top and bake in the oven at 180 degrees C for 25 minutes. Serve with a green salad – onto which you have, or have not, scattered some edible flowers.

You may well find that one of the marginal gains is that your guests like it so much that they ask for seconds, followed by thirds. My daughter did. In fact, she would have had fourths,  but there was none left.

 

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.

 

The Art of Fugue Soup

If osso bucco is a complex symphony, baked alaska is a frivolous operetta and a jam doughnut is a song by Cliff Richard, then a bowl of fine soup is a fugue. The best soup unites ingredients that act beautifully together; separate but always enhancing and echoing each other, just like a fugue.

As I write this, I’m listening to Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It’s a piece of music I can listen to endlessly and often do. My fugue soup is the perfect accompaniment – and very satisfyingly it’s not just fugal but frugal.

The only essential thing about this soup is that it should be cooked so lightly as to keep its bright green hue – khaki vegetable soup is more requiem than fugue. But you can vary the ingredients depending on the season. That way your soup will be both different and the same, as is a fugue.

 FUGUE SOUP

Serves 4

  • 2 litres vegetable stock
  • 200g podded or frozen petit pois
  • 200g broad beans
  • 2 medium courgettes, cut into small dice
  • 200g fine asparagus
  • 1 clove garlic, finely sliced
  •  4 spring onions or scallions, chopped finely
  • Handful herb flowers such as thyme or chive
  • Handful chopped chives
  • Handful torn basil
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Seasoning

Bring the stock to a simmer. Add the broad beans and blanch for 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and put aside in a bowl. When cool, peel off the leathery skins and discard. With the stock still at a simmer, add the asparagus and one of the diced courgettes to the liquid and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove these vegetables too and put aside. Add the peas. Blanch for no more than 1 minute if they’re frozen and 3 minutes if they’re fresh, before removing and once again putting to one side. Reserve the stock.

In a small frying pan, gently heat the chopped spring onions and garlic in the olive oil. Allow to soften but not to brown. Add the second diced courgette to the frying pan and allow it to soften too. Tip the onions, garlic and courgette mixture into the stock and cook gently for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add half the blanched peas and heat for a further minute. The courgettes and peas should still be bright green – it’s crucial not to overcook the soup and thereby allow shades of combat trousers to enter the spectrum. Process with a stick blender in the pan until smooth. Just before serving, tip in all the remaining blanched vegetables that you put to one side at the start. Season to taste. Ladle the soup into bowls in which you have placed some shredded fresh basil leaves. Top with a handful of chopped chives and some herb flowers.

Eat while listening to my favourite performance of The Art of Fugue, by the Russian pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff. It’s the version chosen by novelist Vikram Seth for the CD that he compiled to accompany his exquisite musical novel An Equal Music. So in true fugal counterpoint, you can eat fugue soup, while listening to the The Art of Fugue and reading about The Art of Fugue at the same time. What could possibly be more fugal?

 

Review: Polpo by Russell Norman

Polpo by Russell Norman

Photographed by Jenny Zarins

Published by Bloomsbury, July 2012

Price £25.00

Polpo’s food, in its restaurants and in this book, is so stripped back as to be almost indecent. Eat at Polpo and you will be served Venetian-style cichèti, or small snacks and plates of food, with simple china, no linen and very little cutlery. Even the luxury that Londoners have come to expect of being able to book a table, has been sliced away in Russell Norman’s mania for simplicity. Polpo‘s first cookery book includes all the classic recipes that smitten customers love and expect: Anchovy & Chickpea Crostini; Fritto Misto; Panzanella.

Panzanella photographed by Jenny Zarins

Amongst the hundreds of cookery books in my collection, just about every style, category, method and region of food is covered. Or that’s what I thought. But with the arrival of Polpo, I realised that I’d been lacking something… a postmodern cookery book.

If you’ve been reading Eggs On The Roof for a while, you’ll know I have a weakness for the postmodern. Postmodernism plus food would, you’d think, be an absolute winner as far as I’m concerned. And you’d be right. But how does Polpo show off its postmodern status? The answer is, on its spine. Russell Norman has taken his passion for reduction to new postmodern heights and stripped away the book’s outer spine too, to reveal its deconstructed, stitched and glued interior.

Show-off postmodernism for its own sake is tedious. It wrecks its original intentions and becomes merely tedious posturing. But this is where Norman and his publishers have been so clever. The subversive act of stripping away the book’s spine makes this the very first cookery book I’ve ever owned that sits entirely flat on the table when it’s opened. And that makes it a joy to use.

Photographer: Jenny Zarins

The recipes are as spare and simple as the ideology behind them. Typically, as a former English teacher, Russell Norman turns to literature to encapsulate that ethos. “We have a rule that a dish is ready to be put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredients as possible. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.'”

I revelled in recipes with only three or four ingredients, in combinations that require no cooking, in fresh ingredients that seem to have gone on a blind date, introduced themselves to each other on the plate and found perfect harmony. This is simple cooking at its best: Grissini, Pickled Radicchio & Salami; Rocket & Walnut Pesto Crostini; Pizzetta Bianca; Prosciutto & Butternut Squash With Ricotta Salata.

Broad Bean, Mint & Ricotta Bruschette photographed by Jenny Zarins

Warm Octopus Salad photographed by Jenny Zarins

So is this book, are these recipes, too simple to merit all the fuss? Absolutely not. To borrow another phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as the fox tells Le Petit Prince, ‘It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.’ It’s the time that Russell Norman and head chef Tom Oldroyd have devoted to their passion for removing things that makes the removing of those things so important.