This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week five (pie week) of series three: a Wellington
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
[Address to a Haggis]
So says the poet, by which I mean Robert Burns (1759-1796), Bard of Ayrshire, Ploughman Poet, son of Scotland, whose prolific artistic output is matched by the unmitigated directness of his verse. For all that his works are often written in Scottish dialect, they remain piercingly accessible to those of us used to reading only standard English, and even today they have lost none of their resonant power. I think this is perfectly illustrated by one of Burns’ more popular poems, Tam O’Shanter (which I encountered in my fluorescent-lit English Literature classroom on the first day of Sixth Form), which veers between the frankly comic spectacle of an angry woman, sitting up waiting for her drunken husband, who she knows is stumbling home late (“Where sits our sulky, sullen dame, / Gathering her brows like gathering storm, / Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”) to an elegiac meditation on our small human grasp of happiness: “But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed; / Or like the snow falls in the river, / A moment white-then melts for ever”.
Robert Burns’ life, work and cultural impact are celebrated annually on Burns Night, which technically has no fixed date as such but is typically held close to Burns’ birthday of 25 January. Is there any other celebration like Burns Night? I can’t think of any other poet, writer or artist so commemorated, not even Shakespeare. (If there is something similar, though, I’d love to know about it!). Burns suppers are characterised by the holy Scottish trinity of haggis, whisky and a side of Burns’ poetry. Traditionally, a recitation of Burns’ Address to a Haggis follows the ceremonial entry of this savoury pudding. The Address is long and the recitation must be gruelling:I have hosted a Burns Night-themed dinner at which a friend’s boyfriend gamely recited the whole thing and it was seriously impressive as a feat of stamina.
Haggis, a mixture of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onion, oats and suet, by convention encased in a sheep’s stomach, seems to be very off-putting to many (the anxiety on a friend’s face when I offered her a slice was something to behold), but it’s delicious. Suet, which people often think of as claggy and heavy, actually lends food a very light texture (as long as it’s warm – once cold, it certainly stiffens up). If you eat fancy haggis procured by a butcher and sold at a nice restaurant, it will taste like a big spiced meatball, with a delicate, quite soft (almost loose) texture; commercially-bought ones from the supermarket that you heat up are firmer and (inevitably) saltier, but still make for a really good, nubbly-textured savoury dish.
I came up with the idea of a haggis Wellington because, frankly, fillet of beef is too expensive, and it seemed like something reasonably original – though, as ever, a few people got there before me. As it turns out haggis marries beautifully with a pile of mushrooms sautéed with cream and brandy and a wrapper of rough puff pastry. If you want to serve up haggis in a slightly different way, I think this is a great choice. With a side order of Burns.
I frequently find myself buying interesting jars of this or that when I come across them in the supermarket, corner shop or while on holiday: ajvar, violet extract, chilli relish, halva spread and balsamic pearls have all made their way into my cupboards on such random expeditions. It’s very rare that I have something in mind for them – they just interest me. (I’m equally catholic in taste vis-a-vis cookbooks). I also enjoy kitchen puttering above almost anything: the consequence is that jars and packets of purchased items are easily joined by row upon row of homemade produce: jams, chutneys, and liqueurs weigh down the shelves in my kitchen which, despite being sizeable by London standards, always feels too small for my needs.
The main consequence, apart from the groaning shelf, is that once you open said jars, your fridge also becomes a graveyard of half-used condiments which never quite get used up. It always seems such a shame to chuck them out, especially if homemade or expensive, even though you run the risk of them becoming furry and spoiled even when chilled if you wait too long. In the spirit of clearing through some of my condiment collection, I devised this recipe for a lamb sausage roll – or perhaps you could call it a lamb slice – which, in addition to the minced lamb, zesty-fresh with lemon, mint and spices, contains a sweet-acid slick of damson tkemali.
Tkemali is a Georgian sour plum sauce made from cherry plums which is typically served with meat. Many recipes geared towards a UK audience use prune plums, but I made a batch using a bag of damsons which, like the cherry plums they are traditionally made with, have a distinctly sour note. The vivid-purple jar was happily spooned out with crisp-roast poussin, but a few tablespoons remained at the bottom, unused, for some time. With space in my fridge at a premium, it was time to make an effort to use it.
Obviously the problem of excess tkemali may be unique, but I wager you could use any plum chutney or sauce with this recipe, as long as it has a good mix of sweet and sour flavour – you may need to tweak your spices a bit depending on the flavours inherent within your condiment. Also, if you like heat and have a jar of harissa knocking around, add a dollop of that – although I enjoyed the lamb rolls as they were, I did want a bit of extra heat. The mixture of paprika, mint, lemon and sumac gave the lamb a flavour profile that hinted at the Middle East; the tkemali teased out the links between Georgian and Middle Eastern culinary tradition by complementing those flavours perfectly.
I served these hot for supper with a tomato-balsamic salad, but the leftover rolls were delicious wrapped up and eaten cold the next day for lunch.
Ideas for variations
I didn’t have any fresh tarragon at home but substituting tarragon for the parsley in the recipe below would have given the lamb rolls a more recognisably Georgian touch
If using a British-style plum chutney, which often contain dried fruit and flavourings such as mustard seeds, you might want to leave out the mint and maybe the sumac and add a dollop of mustard to the lamb. It could also go well with lamb sprinkled with South Asian spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala
If using a Chinese plum sauce you could flavour it with ginger, extra garlic and cumin and five-spice powder instead
A few weeks ago, the internet presented me with an interview Tom Hiddleston gave for GQ. For a few hours, I could not avoid it, so I read it. I read it even though I have seen exactly one film in which Tom Hiddleston has acted (Midnight in Paris, a tiny part) (why no, I have not seen The Night Manager); even though I thought ‘Hiddleston’ had a second ‘e’ (at the end); even though according to me the whole ‘I heart TS’ thing will probably never not be funny (I get that he did the interview to move on from this but COME ON). I read it because I kept seeing people mention that the beating heart of the interview was…bolognese.
Bolognese? BOLOGNESE. There was a moment, a moment where every food media outlet was suddenly tumbling over itself to talk about Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, which he served to his interviewer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, apparently with a huge helpful of evangelical enthusiasm (“Tom! Hiddleston! Loves! This! Bolognese!”) but not, as it turns out, pasta. To be honest, I find this a little antisocial. Possibly a carb-avoiding thing?
I came away from the interview feeling somewhat bemused. Like…was it a parody? Apparently it was not…but it read like one? Or am I doing that British thing (I am not British, but have adopted many of their ways to blend in to their society better) of misreading American sincerity? But I also came away thinking the following:
It is so cold and I want food to warm me and this will warm me
Baking this in the oven sounds like a very good idea
The thing that distinguished the Tom Hiddleston Bolognese was the Three Bs: the inclusion of butter and bacon, and the baking as the application of heat. Because I live in the UK, I did not face the confusion US magazine Bon Appetit faced when considering what the “tin of tomatoes” from Brodesser-Akner’s notes could mean. BA writer Alyse Whitney speculated: whole? crushed? diced? sauce? To which I can clarify: in the UK there are literally two tomato products that come in tins: chopped tomatoes, or whole peeled plum tomatoes. Passata and tomato sauce comes in glass jars or occasionally in tetra-packs. Tomato paste comes in metal tubes or very occasionally in small cans and no one would refer to paste as ‘a tin of tomatoes’.
For all that my interpretation of this bolognese is inspired by the world of celebrity, this recipe is in fact a celebration of slowness, of patient application, and of time. It has depth and provenance.
I started it almost as soon as I rolled out of bed in the morning, mincing onions and carrots and celery while sipping a cup of tea; as the milk and then the wine bubbled into the mixture of meat, I washed up the dishes and watched the late February snowfall; tiny white flecks that moved dizzily. Then I kneaded pasta dough and covered it, and then I put the big, heavy pot of sauce in the oven on a low, low heat, and put on my gym gear and went, for the first time in a while, to the gym.
And then I went for a walk around the neighbourhood and the snow started coming down in thick heavy flakes which landed on my nose and didn’t melt for a disconcertingly long time. And then I went home and showered and took down the pasta machine I bought years ago in a charity shop and started rolling the pasta dough and kneading it and rolling, thinner and thinner, and cutting it into fat wide ribbons. And then it was finally time to eat, and we sat down and the meat was silkily tender from the milk proteins and time – even the bacon lardons were soft all the way through. The fresh, just made, just cut, just cooked pappardelle noodles were soft and delicate as voile and yet somehow had that springy, toothy resilience which makes eating them such a pleasure and so worth the work, which is not inconsiderable. And the house was warm from the oven and it was all snowy and blustery outside and my nose which had been so very cold had warmed up and regained its feeling, and yes, eating delicious food that has involved time and care, sharing this food that you have made and nourished, on a cold day when fat icy flakes are coming down, is apt to make one feel grateful, and I felt enormously grateful and happy.
This recipe owes, so very much, and so obviously, to Marcella Hazan’s classic bolognese sauce, to her method, down to the addition of milk, the scrape of nutmeg. Yet for all that it’s not her recipe, but mine: the addition of bacon, the veal mince, the measurements and proportions, the longer, slower cooking in an oven, where the dry even heat means the meat cooks until exquisitely tender and moist without sticking.
You may wonder if there is enough tomato in the recipe below, even considering that traditionally bolognese sauce does not use a lot of tomatoes; and yes, it is. The flavour really does concentrate over the six-plus hours of cooking.
I served this with homemade egg papardelle but if you cannot be bothered with this, just use a good quality dried papardelle. I must say, the bolognese sauce, while time-consuming, is very simple to make; the pasta is much harder work.
Not Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, or, Slow-Cooked Six-Hour Bolognese Would serve 4-6. The leftovers are delightful
NOTE: I cooked this for about six hours: three at 100C (covered), two and a half (uncovered) at 120C and about half an hour (uncovered) at 180C, and it hung around in the oven while I was rolling and cutting the pasta.
1 TBS olive oil
200g smoked lardons or pancetta cubes
1 small onion, about 100-150g, finely chopped
2 carrots or 3 small carrots – between 150-180g, finely chopped
2-3 celery sticks – between 120-150g, finely chopped
800g beef mince (mine was 10% fat)
800g veal mince
500ml whole milk
500ml white wine (NOTE: TH apparently used red wine)
1 tin of plum tomatoes
Melt together the butter and olive oil on a medium-low heat. Add the lardons or pancetta and cook for around 5 minutes, until they have cooked through and slightly browned at the edges and the fat has rendered.
Increase heat to medium. Add the onion and stir around in the fat; cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook together for two minutes.
Add the beef and veal mince and add a large pinch of salt and grind in black pepper to taste. Crumble the meat about the pan with a wooden spoon and let colour, stirring occasionally, until it has browned a little (actually it goes a slightly greyish-beige colour beofre browning properly, which is what you should aim for, but this sounds horrible) and no longer looks red and raw. Return pan to medium-low or low heat.
Add the milk to the pan, stir together with the meat and let it simmer gently until the majority of the liquid has bubbled away. This will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn down the heat.
Grate in a tiny smidgen – a grating or three, no more than an eighth of a teaspoon – of nutmeg
Add the wine and let it simmer gently until most of it has evaporated away – this will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn the heat down
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to a low setting. If you want to eat within 3-4 hours you could preheat to 120C, but if you want to leave it for a good long while, around 100C is good.
Once the wine has bubbled away, for the most part, add the tinned tomatoes, crushing them in your fists as you add them. Right now you probably have a pale and unappetising mess, milky and insipid-looking and studded with red chunks of tomato. Take a deep breath, cover the pot, and put in the oven.
Now leave it. You want to cook it covered at this low heat for at least two hours, and three is better. Longer won’t hurt, either, as long as your temperature is around 100C. If you are hanging around at home and can give it the occasional stir, do so.
After several hours have passed, remove the lid from the pot. You will see a somewhat reduced, darker and more delicious looking sauce that has not yet achieved the heights of flavour, depth and concentration it has the potential to reach. Quite possibly the sauce has started to separate slightly, with the meat at the bottom and a red layer of fat at the top. Stir it all together. If your temperature is very low, increase to 120C and put the uncovered pan back in the oven. Leave for at least two hours.
Around an hour before, or at least halfan hour before, you want to eat, increase the heat to 180C. The purpose of this final blast of heat is to concentrate all the juices of the meat and tomatoes together and to ensure that it arrives at the table completely hot and delicious and bubbling. The fat will once again have separated from the meat in an oily layer on top. Personally, for serving, I don’t pour this off the pan, but I do pick up the meat with a slotted spoon so the fat returns to baste the remaining sauce rather than ending up as a greasy layer on the plate. If you prefer a thicker, more mouth-coating texture, pick up some of the fat with your serving spoon.
While the bolognese is cooking, you have time to make your own pasta dough. You don’t have to, but you can. I think homemade pasta is for special occasions but a six-hour sauce definitely deserves it, or at least the very best pasta you can get your hands on.
2 large eggs
200g Italian ’00’ flour (which is very fine) or plain flour
Place the flour in a bowl (or directly onto your kitchen surface if you want to look like an Italian grandmother in a travel programme!) and make a well in the centre. Pour the eggs into this well and beat them until smooth.
Combine the eggs and flour, mixing with the tips of your fingers, until everything comes together in a big, shaggy mess that doesn’t in any way resemble pasta.
Knead the dough onto your work surface until it has become a smooth, shiny ball that holds together and has a bit of stretch and give to it – this is a sign you have developed the gluten and will ensure you have pliable pasta with a little bit of bite rather than someything crumbly. Incidentally, this is very tough work.
Once kneaded, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
When you are ready to start rolling the pasta, clamp your pasta machine to a clean work surface (I often find the clamping to be the biggest challenge!) and divide the dough into halves or thirds, keeping the pieces you are not rolling well wrapped.
Dust the lump of dough you are using with a little flour, then set the pasta machine to its widest setting. Roll the dough through this setting, then fold it in half and roll again, doing this five or six times to work the dough and make it silky.
Dust the dough with a little more flour and roll it through the pasta machine at the widest setting, then fold it in half and set the machine to the next lowest setting. Run it through the machine again and repeat the process until you have run the pasta through to the narrowest setting. This can get quite difficult to juggle so do cut the pasta in half if you need to. (Note: if your dough is cracking and breaking horribly it’s probably become too dry over the course of rolling. Just roll it as thinly as you can).
Once the pasta has been rolled out to the thinnest setting, dust the sheet thoroughly with flour on both sides and roll it up like a Swiss roll or roulade on the short end. Take a knife and cut across the length of the pasta roll in 2-2.5cm intervals (depending on how wide you want the pappardelle). When you unravel the pasta to dry it out, you will have long strips of pappardelle. Hang them over a clean chair or similar to dry out while rolling the next batch of dough.
When ready to cook, bring an enormous pan of water to the boil and salt it generously. Add the pappardelle in batches and cook for 1-3 minutes, tops. Fish it out with a pasta/spaghetti spoon and mix it in to the sauce (or at least, the portion of sauce you will serve). Some of my pappardelle noodles stuck together a bit but they still tasted wonderful.
I have come to develop strong views on greens. On kales and cabbages (and kings), and green beans and asparagus, and even Brussels sprouts.
Greens! No one likes an overcooked green thing, resigned to a grey and mushy existence following overenthusiastic acquaintance with a pan of hard-boiling water. But I think the growing middle-class dread of serving up a disintegrating plate of veg is resulting in the opposite problem, with vegetables far too often being served undercooked.
A green bean, say, tender and with a hint of crunch as your teeth break through the snappy skin, is a fine thing, perfectly balancing crispness with a soft, yielding interior. All too often, though, cooking instructions suggest as little as two minutes of cooking, resulting in hot beans with a suggestion of softness at the edges, a resolutely crisp interior, and, most unforgivably, hard, cold, mean little seeds at the centre. At that rate, you may as well give in and just served them cool, sweet and raw, so they retain that milky, sappy freshness.
Kale, too, is so often served barely cooked or raw, when its frilly edges are still spiny and throat-catching. Savoy cabbage is rarely shown to the heat long enough to allow its pebbled texture to become nubbled silk. As with vegetables, so too with pasta. Overcooked pasta is an unappestising, floppy mess, often pooled with water so thick with starch it is almost gelatinous. But undercooked pasta is crunchy and chalky and no good for winding round the fork or mopping up the sauce. Balance is essential.
Which leads me to this: cavolo nero pasta for one, in which the leaves of this deep dark Italian kale are cooked down in wine and butter and oil until delicate and submissive. Intertwined with some good bucatini – you can use spaghetti if that’s what you have – it makes a satisfying, iron-rich supper for those nights when, say, your partner in dining is trooping around the great garrison towns of Yorkshire.
I’m also sure this will sound like, look like, a lot of cavolo nero to start. And it is, enough to make this a hearty meal and give it plenty of body, because green things will happily cook down to nothing if you let them.
You’ll notice I said ‘good bucatini’. I’m no stranger to value packs of spaghetti from Lidl and would not turn my nose up at these ever, but given the relatively sparse ingredients in this dish, a good-quality pasta will make a difference to the final dish. Bucatini, incidentally, is like a slightly thicker spaghetti with a hollow running down the centre and is a little chewier and more resilient than spaghetti; I enjoy its robustness and it stands up well to the assertive kale. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d buy it here.
Cavolo nero with bucatini, for one
90g bucatini or spaghetti
300g pack of cavolo nero
1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to serve (optional)
1 TBS olive oil
4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
Big pinch of chilli flakes
a good glug of white wine – 60ml, if you want to measure
The zest and juice of half a lemon
Lots and lots of Parmesan – I like mine very finely grated on a Microplane so that it resembles cheese dust
Put a big pan of water for the pasta on the hob, bring to the boil, and salt it generously.
Strip the leaves of the cavolo nero from the stalks. I do this just by pinching the base of the stem between my index finger and thumb and pulling down the length of the stalk – they come away just as efficiently as if you’d used one of those plasticky kale strippersplasticky kale strippers. If you have any smaller leaves attached to slimmer, softer stems, these can just be chopped up without stripping them. Remove any yellowy bits of the kale because these will do you no favours.
Tear or roughly chop the large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
Add your pasta to the pan of water and bring back to the boil. Set your timer for eight minutes.
Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant and just tinged with gold – up to thirty seconds, but as little as 10-15.
Add the chilli flakes and stir them around the pan for a bit, maybe 20 seconds, until you can smell their spicy fragrance.
Throw in the great pile of cavolo nero leaves and stir-fry in the pan for about two minutes. Add a pinch of salt here. Pour in the wine and let it bubble for thirty seconds. Turn the heat down to medium (or medium-low if things seem to be cooking fast) and continue to cook, pushing the leaves around the pan, until they wilt down. Throw in the odd splash of water if things are getting too dry and lower the hear once the cavolo nero is wilted down. Continue stirring.
When the timer for the pasta goes off, give it a test. It might need two more minutes.
Once ready, drain the pasta, not too thoroughly (you want a little of the clinging water). Stir the pasta through the cavolo nero in the frying pan and stir them around together for about thirty seconds to amalgamate. Remove the pan from the heat.
Zest and juice the lemon into the pan. Stir around and taste. Add some salt and pepper if you like and taste again. If you want, zest in more of the lemon and squeeze in more juice and add more salt and pepper. And, also if you want, melt in another pat of butter so the pasta become slick and glossy and the leaves tender and rich.
Pour the panful of pasta and vegetables into your bowl or plate of choice and dust with lots of Parmesan. Then grate over some more Parmesan, because you only live once.
I read a lot of articles and books on food history and how changes in technology change our relationship with eating and the process of cooking itself. Looking back at the evolution of kitchen technology can result in quite a jolt – it’s fascinating to see how much of what we think of as our culinary culture is the product of technological change, and how much of what we consider tradition is actually relatively modern. One such ‘tradition’ is that of the reheating and re-eating of ‘leftovers’. While uneaten prepared food is likely to be as old as human beings’ relationship with the cooking process itself (unless our caveman ancestors were really excellent at judging portions of mammoth), the concept of ‘leftovers’ – a prepared meal served again and again, in the same form, until it’s done – is much newer, and is tied to the history of refrigeration and, more importantly, the arrival of fridges into the family home.
Prior to their introduction, the concept of ‘leftover’ food appearing on the plate in more or less the same format didn’t exist as such – it was all simply treated as ingredients, continuously reworked and reformed into new dishes. A a roast slab of beef or lamb would be diced into a fine mince, mixed with the leftover gravy and some vegetables, and baked with a topping (and indeed lining) of mashed potato to make a cottage or shepherd’s pie. The pies we make now, using fresh raw mince which is cooked specially, is much more modern. Cooked meat chopped fine formed the basis of many a dish, most of them quite similar: rissoles (breaded patties), cutlets (patties formed into a shape supposedly resembling an actual cutlet), and even something called ‘beef olives’ – thin slices of beef wrapped around vegetables, covered in stock or broth and cooked for an unfathomably long time.
Reworking leftover bits and pieces of food has the advantage of staving off the extreme boredom that can result when eating, say, the same bowlful of carrot soup night after night, especially if the dish you made isn’t something that necessarily gets better with time. I don’t own a freezer, so when I make a dish that yields a lot of servings, I unfortunately don’t have the satisfying option of popping it into a neat labelled box and stowing it away for busier days. A while ago, I made a large portion of ratatouille from a slimming cookbook. I think my liking for ratatouille is a bit more theoretical than actual – I don’t like cooked fresh tomatoes, for example – and calorie-controlled recipes tend to bulk up on watery courgettes rather than delicious, melting, oil-absorbing aubergine. Safe to say, my liking for the recipe was moderate, but there were at least four more portions in the pot after dinner. I served it up in two relatively simple new ways, one on a working night and one on a Friday night.
Firstly, with courgetti. Here, doubtless, some people may already be turning away in faint disgust. The courgetti backlash is commencing in earnest at the moment. Spiralised vegetables have come to symbolise the clean eating movement, so it’s unsurprising that, as we enter the moment where the mediais turning againstclean eating as rapidly as it embraced itrapidly as it embraced it, the vegetable noodle has become severely castigated. I’ve seen them described as tasteless, bland, boring and deficient in terms of the ‘energy’ they offer. And yet I persist in quite liking courgetti. Maybe it’s because my interest in acquiring a spiraliser to make vegetable noodles predates the clean eating movement by a good number of years, ever since I saw a post on Chowhound about daikon noodles. I thought the idea was fun and added some interest, the opportunity for innovation and fun textural contrasts, but back then acquiring a spiraliser was more complicated and expensive than it is now; the Lurch model I wanted was perennially out of stock on Amazon and cost about a third more than they do now (demand and supply, right there). And now that spiralising vegetables is easy, the noodles themselves represent everything about a food culture gone wrong; they mean fear – of gluten, pleasure, wheat, fat, abandon, gluttony.
Still, let’s not get hung up on what food symbolises. I still like them and yes, courgette is less energy-dense than spaghetti, so eating it carved into noodles can be helpful if you’re monitoring your calorie intake, which I try to be conscious of. There, I said it. So, the day after I made the fateful never-ending pot of ratatouille, I spiralised two courgettes into thin, satisfyingly long noodles, reheated the ratatouille with an addition splash or two of water (in addition to not having a freezer, I do not own a microwave), and then dropped in the courgetti to cook and lose their raw edge in the sauce for a couple of minutes. I think this is key with vegetable noodles: no matter how much people may try to convince me otherwise, the idea of eating raw courgette rarely appeals.
So the nice thing about this was that it was very quick: slizzing the courgetti into noodles, warming up the ratatouille and cooking the vegetable strips was actually quicker than boiling up spaghetti would have been, and although it does then require washing up the spiraliser or julienne peeler used, this is no worse, to me, than washing up the sieve I use to drain pasta, which always gets gunged up with the thick, starchy pasta cooking water.
I served this up with the ubiquitous clean-eating favourite, the avocado, and – less celebrated among the clean eating who walk among us – soft goat’s cheese (I think Lidl’s is very good but also like the one from Sainsbury’s). I enjoyed it a lot.
I bought a quite small butternut squash (as you can see above, the squash I used was a little smaller than a dinner plate; although dinner plates can, these days, be huge, the one in the picture is a modestly-sized Denby plate), cut in half vertically and scooped out the seeds in the cavity. I then slashed the flesh with a small sharp knife, cutting about 1cm deep and rubbed it with some oil and seasoning before baking for just under an hour in a preheated 200C oven. Once the squash was tender, I piled in the remaining ratatoutille in the squash cavities and baked it for about ten minutes (to heat through) before topping with grated Parmesan – Emmental would be great here too, because it melts beautifully in delicious, gooey, molten, appetising strings. The cheese-topped squash was returned to the oven to allow the Parmesan to melt. The resulting dish was served with a dollop of creme fraiche – somehow the addition of cool, tangy lactic fat offsets the fat from the cheese and provides a good contrast to the vegetables and starchy squash.
It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.
Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?
All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries(her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.
Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.
Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.
I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.
But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.
Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.
This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.