Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story

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.

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Lamb stew at my dinner table. Overhead lighting, photo taken at night, because that’s how it rolls

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.

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Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons

Here in London we swing from chilly, bright mornings to warm, light-filled afternoons, and back into evenings cool enough to make hot water bottles a tempting prospect. Weather like this requires an arsenal of recipes in one’s back pocket, from cool noodle salads for evenings drowsy with humidity to warming recipes that provide ballast against the creeping coldness of a surprisingly crisp spring night.

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So to this recipe. It’s inspired by one I found in a magazine…nothing out of the ordinary there, except that the magazine in question is one from 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was published in the early, rather than high, summer, a reminder that British summers, too, can run to cool. The recipe as it was printed would, I’m sure, confound many stereotypes about British food: it read surprisingly modern with its combination of beef, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and macaroni, a veritable one-pot meal sprightly with tender vegetables. The magazine in question was a penny a week and so accessible to upper-working or lower-middle class women with a bit of extra income, and was most explicitly directed at the kind of woman who had servants, but usually no more than two (a cook and a maid); sometimes the imagined readers’ income could stretch to no more than a charlady (“the woman of the future will even have to scrub” was a particularly cautionary phrase mid-way through the First World War).

I put this together based on some shredded cabbage languishing in the fridge after a recipe called for only half a head and the vague memory of this recipe, buried under the many, many magazines I read for my MA dissertation in the summer of 2014. What I mostly remember is the serialised romances – the mill-girl swapped at birth, the man who loses his arm at Mons – but some of the recipes stood out too. I didn’t have any macaroni in the house so served it with boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but I think the pasta would be a great addition; simmering in the tomato sauce, it will absorb the flavours and add a slip of silky starchiness to the stew, subtly thickening it.

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

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 (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie
Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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RECIPE: tiny white bean, chorizo and kale stew

My friend Tina came to dinner some time ago and I wanted to whip something up that combined cold-weather appropriate deliciousness, chorizo, and jewel-like colours.

This chorizo, cannellini bean and kale stew was firstly inspired by Nigella Lawson’s butter bean mash, which is why I used the garlic and rosemary to start off the stew, with no onion to muddy up the flavour (I do love onion, but it wasn’t right here).

I bought the cannellini beans from Waitrose and they were ridiculously tiny and adorable, even after soaking. A note on soaking beans: the back of the packet of cannelini beans suggested using 75g dried for 125g cooked beans, and for this particular bean this suggestion seemed about right. I wanted the equivalent of two tins worth so soaked about 230g dried beans, give or take. Dried bean to tinned bean equivalencies are very much a work in progress and one day I shall probably produce a chart. I find chickpeas to be the most unpredictable.

A good bowful

As for the tomatoes, I used one of those leetle half-tins of plum tomatoes but there’s no reason not to use half a normal tin, maybe freezing the rest if you have no immediate use for it. Even with the tomato paste I didn’t want this to be a dominantly tomato-tasting stew, hence using half a tin.

What I liked about the chorizo was that some is minced and stirred through the stew, and some is sliced for use as a garnish. Drizzling the stew with a touch of the chorizo cooking oil is pretty and delicious, though as ever don’t go overboard.

Stewing away, with a panful of chorizo next to it

Little white bean, chorizo and kale stew

230g cannellini beans, soaked overnight
2 – 3 TBS olive oil
1 – 2 sprigs rosemary, de-stalked, spiky leaves bruised
2 – 3 cloves garlic, sliced
230g (half a normal tin) plum tomatoes
1 TBS tomato paste
200g chorizo, half sliced into rounds, half chopped into bits (what I did was slice this half into coins and then quarter them)
about 100g curly kale. If you have any large tough stems you might want to cut the leaves in half through the stem

1) Drain the beans, put in a pot, cover with cold water and bring to the boil over a medium-high heat. Once boiling, cook at a rolling boil for ten minutes (apparently essential for all beans, to destroy their evil toxins), then turn down to a steady simmer and cook till tender, 40 mins – 2 hours. (Yes. This can be summed as ‘cook till tender your way’, should you have one. But the devil is in the detail). (I start checking after half an hour to see how tender they are – they’re unlikely to be done after 30 minutes but it helps gauge how long you’ll need to cook them for). NB: this step can be done in advance

2) In a separate pan, heat the oil over a medium heat and add the rosemary and garlic. Stir 30 second – 1 minute, until they start getting fragrant.

3) Add the cooked, drained beans, tomatoes and tomato paste and stir together. Cover, turn heat to low and let lightly simmer for 10 – 15 minutes or more (as convenient) to let the flavours meld a bit

4) Meanwhile, heat up a frying pan and dry-fry the minced chorizo until cooked through. Drain on kitchen paper and stir through the stew.

5) Add the curly kale and cook for a further 5 – 10 minutes (or slightly more depending on how tough your kale is) until the kale is cooked and tender (test a stalk!)

6) Meanwhile dry-fry the chorizo rounds until cooked through.

7) Decant stew into bowls and garnish with chorizo. And then some more and then some more because yuuuuuuum.

This would serve about four, and it tastes good reheated.