Monday, 15 September 2008

Fruit Picking

Believe it or not we had some sunshine in London this weekend. It has, or course, now gone but it was good whilst it lasted. I decided to take advantage of the good weather on Saturday by going to Hewitt's Farm in Kent to pick some damsons. My 14 year old son came with me. Being 14, fruit picking is not top of his favoured activity list but even he had to admit it was nice to be out in the sunshine. Unfortunately, it appears that "it has not been a good year for plums" and damsons, therefore, were few and far between.

We did however manage to pick some runner beans and pick up (from the farm shop) some cooking plums (of which more to come in the next post) and some baby squashes.

If plums were in short supply, the same could not be said of apples. There were row upon row of apple trees all heavily laden with fruit. Unfortunately this week is a busy week for me and I knew that the apples were likely to go to waste if I picked them as I will not have the time to cook or store them. However, I will keep them in mind for a few weekends' time.

In addition to the cultivated fruit and veg on the farm the hedgerows were full of various wild fruiting plants such as elderberries, sloes and rosehips.

However, again, commitments this week meant that I was unlikely to find the time to research and make something from any of these things - even assuming you were allowed to pick them and they were for sale.

All in all it was a very enjoyable hour or so (notwithstanding constant enquiries from my son as to exactly how much longer we were going to be).

But now the sun has gone again and it is time to turn my thoughts to something autumnal to do with the plums.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

I gotta gotta gotta stop making pannacotta

Spending the weekend with my mother and my two sisters led to me reminiscing about the food that I ate as a child. It was always delicious food and, given the number of wide angle photographs of me as a youngster, there was clearly always plenty of it. However, one thing it was not was varied. Each week the menu was more or less identical - my father knew what he liked and we all got it week in and week out. Saturday lunch, for example, was lamb's liver and mashed potatoes with onion gravy. I remember once suggesting that we have something different when I came home from university for summer holidays - but I think they thought it was just me getting above myself with my new fangled university ways and the liver made its weekly appearance as usual.

The reminiscing in turn led me to wonder whether this repetitive food issue was perhaps genetic. A few weeks ago I had about fifteen friends over for a summer party. Puddings are not my forte in the kitchen nor my favourite part of the meal. I made a panna cotta which, on this occasion, I had flavoured with coconut and I served it with a mango and pineapple coulis. When it was served, one of the party mentioned that, when they had last come for dinner, they had also had a panna cotta (on that occasion flavoured with lavender and served with a strawberry and rhubarb coulis). To be fair this comment was made with kindness as the person concerned was extolling the virtues of the aforementioned lavender panna cotta. However, no sooner was the comment made than almost everybody else in the party said something along the lines of "Ooh yes I have had that here too". Now, given that many of the fifteen guests had never met each other before the evening in question, it was clear to me that I had rolled out the old lavender panna cotta on at least five or six occasions.

Whilst my motives may have differed from my father's, I am in danger of becoming a serial server of panna cotta! I hope that this is a case of nurture rather than nature and in an attempt to break the habit I think a stint of panna cotta cold turkey is in order. It is however an (almost) failsafe pudding and can be prepared in advance so, whilst I will not be making it again in the near future, I commend it to you:

Lavender Pannacotta with Strawberry and Rhubarb Coulis

600ml Double Cream
150ml Full Cream Milk
2 or 3 sprigs of dried lavender
4 sheets of leaf gelatine
60g of caster sugar

3 or 4 stalks of rhubarb
1 small punnet of strawberries
20g caster sugar

Pour the cream and milk into a small saucepan and add the lavendar sprigs. Bring this mixture to the boil and then simmer for 10 minutes.

Whilst the milk/cream is simmering, soak the gelatine sheets in some cold water.

Strain the milk/cream mixture into a bowl and add the sugar. Take the gelatine out of the water and squeeze it to get rid of excess water then add to the hot milk/cream mixture and stir thoroughly until dissolved.

Pour the mixture into 6 individual moulds, allow to cool and then place in the fridge, covered in cling film, for at least 3 hours to set.

To make the coulis, chop the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces and put into a small saucepan with a little of the sugar and a tablespoon or two of water. Cover the pan and put on a medium heat. When the rhubarb has started to soften add the strawberries (washed, hulled and halved). Cover the pan again and simmer further. When the fruit has softened and the juices are running add further sugar to taste (personally, I like the coulis quite sharp). Once the sugar is added empty the pan into a sieve and press the fuit through with a wooden spoon. Let the coulis cool and then refrigerate until needed.

When the panna cottas have set, loosen them by running a sharp kinfe, which you have run under hot water, around the edges of the mould, then briefly but carefully submerge about 2/3rds of each mould in a shallow bowl of hot water. When you upend the moulds onto a plate the panna cotta should easily slide out. Decorate the top of each panna cotta with a sprig of lavender and either pour the coulis around the base of each or into a jug to be served separately.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

My Favourite Chicken and Vegetable Soup

This weekend I am travelling to Wales to visit my mother. She is 87 and has been unwell for a little while. As she has little appetite I am planning to make her my favourite chicken and vegetable soup. I think I originally found this recipe in one of the early River Café cook books, but over the years it has, as a result of me forgetting to revisit the recipe and being unable to find some of the original ingredients, morphed into the following:

Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Firstly, get your stock underway by putting the following into a large pot of cold water:

about 10 chicken wings,
one onion halved (with the skin left on as this gives the stock a great golden colour),
3 carrots (scrubbed and roughly chopped),
three sticks of celery (again scrubbed and chopped),
some parsley with stalks and
about 10 black peppercorns.

Bring it to the boil and skim the surface and then let it simmer for about 2-3 hours.

Whilst the stock is simmering, chop into quite small cubes:

6 carrots,
A head of celery (with leaves if possible), and
2 large onions

SautĂ© the vegetables very, very gently in some good olive oil for about 60 – 90 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure they do not catch on the bottom of the pan. By the end of the cooking period the vegetables should be very soft. This is called a sofritto in Italian cooking I believe.

When the stock is ready, strain it into the sofritto and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Retain the stock vegetables and wings. After 30 minutes add about half a large savoy cabbage (or even better a head of the Italian black cabbage cavollo nero if you can get it) which you have roughly chopped, and simmer for a further 30 minutes.

At the end of the simmering liquidise half of the soup (or stir one of those wand blenders through the whole pot for about 15-20 seconds) and then season it with sea salt and, if necessary, black pepper before adding some of the chicken meat from the wings used to make the stock (shredded roughly).

As a final touch, though probably not for an ailing mother, a good dollop of home made pesto is a perfect addition when serving.

The above may seem like a long winded process for a bowl of soup – but believe me it is worth it and it freezes beautifully too.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Rain Stopped Play

Firstly I have to fess up that I borrowed the heading for this post from one of Louise's emails!

The salad is made, the rucksack is packed, the pop up tent is, well, just sitting in the hallway in a no doubt highly coiled state, the car battery is charged (after a visit from Greengflag and 40 minutes aimless driving around Camberwell and Dulwich) and we are ready for some culture!

We pick up Louise on the way to Dulwich village - at least I believe the apparition in bright orange waterproof gear is Louise! She emerges from her house with the words "Not looking bad is it?" as she peers up at the steely grey sky. At this point you have to remember that Louise originates from Aberdeen and spends a good deal of her time in the Arctic. She is also undertaking an Open University Course on understanding the weather and so is able to assure us that the 3 hour forecast from the Met Office is not looking too bad.

We drive to the Crown and Geyhound in Dulwich Village where we are soon joined by Lucy who has come on her bicycle with a golf umbrella somehow attached. She also is in full wet weather gear. After a swift pint, during which I only just manage to avoid a major faux pas by enquiring whether Lucy has a bread maker (she was in fact up at 6am hand making the bread!), we head off to the park.

It is by now around 7pm although the level of light would lead you to believe it was later - maybe November. We find the "stage" (really just a platform with some steel poles from which electrical cables are swagged with a series of lightbulbs attached). If you are having difficulty envisaging this, find a 10 year old and ask them to "draw something that would be really dangerous in a thunder storm".

Unperturbed, we settle ourselves down on some rugs and set out the food. The salad is well received and Lucy's bread is just fantastic - banish all thoughts of breadmakers. She has made granary rolls which are glazed with some poppy seeds. With these she has brought some lovely Stilton and Cheddar cheeses to which I add some Gorwedd Caerphilly that I had bought a week or so ago but not got round to using. Lucy has also brought some home grown radishes which are great with the hummus from the salad.

By now the play has started - as has a light drizzle. There are probably about 40 people in the audience and they all look like they are used to this outdoor entertainment lark. Not a tent in sight however but there looks to be plenty of room to pitch one should the need arise.

Within 15 minutes the need certainly arises and Bren unleashes the beast that is the pop up tent. I have to say it certainly does what it says on the tin and within seconds there is a dry haven erected at the back of the, now thinning out, audience.

We all crawl into the tent which meant we are now dry - yay. We have however failed to realise that heavy rain falling on a tent makes quite a din so, whilst we are dry and (at least three of us) can vaguely make out the actors through the downpour, we can hardly hear a word. 10 minutes later the second clap of thunder and flash of lightning leads to the performance being abandoned.

My worst fears on the popping down of the pop up tent are realised and any advantage it has afforded in keeping us dry is wiped out by the drenching we get trying to get the thing down. In the end we crumple it up as best we can, ram it into the boot and slam the boot down before it can escape. It is currently still fully erect and drying off in a spare bedroom at home!

Having packed things away we head back to Louise's for a delicious fruit salad of strawberry, nectarine and passion fruit with meringues and whipped cream. Louise is now trying to drum up support for a second visit to the play later in the week (heavy rain forecast all week). I find myself unable to attend for various reasons - not the least of which is the need to pop down a tent.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Is that a Lebanese Cucumber in your salad or are you just pleased to see me?

Saturday 30 August - and believe it or not the sun is shining. In fact it is beating down on an unsuspecting London. Shorts are immediately donned and the pubs make proper use of their outside seating for the first time in a long while. I head into central London to get my hair cut and Bren joins me later. We head into Soho and spend a lengthy period quenching our summer thirst at a number of the local hostelries. As a result of this I waken on Sunday (late morning) not feeling at my sharpest and without any of the required ingredients for the salad I have promised for the theatre picnic this evening. I resolve to head to what I believe is a Middle Eastern grocers on the Walworth Road in the hopes of being able to source everything I need there. My mood and hangover do not improve when I discover my car has a flat battery. Thinking it wise to get the salad done first, I leave the car and take Bren's car for the short drive to the shop - noting as I go that the sun has disappeared and been replaced by low cloud!

The shop turns out to be something of a treasure trove of things Middle Eastern (or possible Turkish - but I am not in the mood to be picky at this point!). The pavement area has a brilliant display of fruit and vegetables and I am soon collecting huge bunches of mint, dill and coriander which each cost considerably less that the rather pathetic plastic bags of herbs available in the supermarkets. They even appear to have Lebanese cucumbers (probably). I have researched them and they are described as smaller and sweeter than normal cucumbers and with a thinner, less tough skin. Wishing to avoid further disappointment and delay I convince myself that the small cucumbers on display are indeed of Lebanese origin and throw a couple into my basket. In fact the only thing I can't pick up at the grocers is the lamb fillet I need but at least I will have the satisfaction of looking disdainfully at the pathetic bags of herbs in Sainsburys when I call in there to pick up the lamb.

Scornful looks having been thrown at the supermarket herbs I arrive home and make the following:

Cucumber, Pepper and Lamb Salad.

Marinade the lamb fillet in some olive oil, lemon juice, ground cumin and ground black pepper for about 30 minutes in the fridge.

Meanwhile, chop one red and one green pepper into very thin strips lengthways and then cut two Lebanese (!) cucumbers into thin batons (having discarded the watery seeds in the middle by scraping them out with a spoon). Combine these ingredients with one very finely chopped red onion, a cup of chopped mint and a half cup of each of chopped dill and coriander. The smell at this point is amazing!

Next cook your lamb fillet in a very hot griddle pan for about 2 or 3 minutes on each side (it should still be pink in the centre). Don't be tempted to turn the fillet or move it too soon but feel free to press down on it to get those nice chargrilled marks. When it is cooked, leave it to rest for 5 minutes and then slice it very thinly and add it to the salad.

Finally make a dressing with the juice of one lemon (add another half lemon if there does not seem to be much), some very good olive oil and a crushed clove of garlic. Season the dressing with sea salt and black pepper, pour over the salad and toss.

I propose to serve this piled onto Turkish bread spread with some fantastic hummus that I picked up at the Middle Eastern grocers.

Now all I need to do is get my car to start.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Menu

The tickets have been ordered for the outdoor performance of "A Winter's Tale" and thoughts have now turned to the food (and the weather). Louise has managed to rope in Lucy to join us for the evening. Lucy is a sculptor and landscape gardener and has agreed to bring some Neal's Yard cheeses and home made bread to the event. Louise has gone for the pudding option and is promising fruit salad, meringues and cream and I am going to make a salad of pink lamb, peppers and cucumber (Lebanese cucumbers if I can work out what exactly they are and where to get hold of them in Camberwell) to be served with Turkish bread and hummus. A perfect menu for a balmy summer's evening. This is the good news.

The bad news is that the BBC weather site has now come to its senses and has changed its "light drizzle at worst" forecast to "Thundery Showers" for Sunday 31 August. I do not have the heart to enquire of the Globe theatre whether thundery showers constitute the extreme weather conditions in the face of which performances will not go ahead. Instead I resolve to buy a pop up tent even though I am not at all sure I can bring myself to overcome the embarrassment of erecting the thing should the need arise. I am also slightly un-nerved by the fact that there is no mention in the product description of the tent "popping down".I do however feel that the tent, combined with the rucksack picnic hamper that I have had for some time but never used, will give us the edge over other theatre goers should things turn ugly!

Friday, 22 August 2008

A Cultural Culinary idea

"There are so many things on locally, and we never seem to get round to doing any of them". So began the conversation in the local pub (The Phoenix at Denmark Hill Station, London SE5 for those of you that like to place these things in a geographic context) when I met my partner Bren and my friend Louise for a post-work beer last week. Within the space of 30 minutes it had been decided to introduce a little oasis into the desert that was our cultural social life, by booking tickets for an open air production of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" to be performed by a touring cast from the Globe Theatre in Dulwich Park.

Culture having been decided upon, Louise's thoughts immediately turned to the food we would all be preparing as, in Louise's book, no outdoor event, whether cultural or not, could be attended without an interesting food offering in tow. It was agreed that further thought would be given to this issue - food not being a subject to be rushed! Victuals having been put on the back burner, thoughts turned to the weather. Anybody reading this in the UK will know that Mother Nature has decided to dispense with Summer this year, preferring instead to replicate November on a monthly basis. However, there were rumours of a "nice weekend" and so with confidence levels high, it was decided that we would go to the first performance in the park which was to take place on Sunday evening.

We were buoyed to discover from the Globe's website that performances would take place in "all but the most extreme weather conditions" and that the BBC weather forecast promised no more than light drizzle at worst on Sunday.

We left the pub with promises of liaising on the food offering and with Louise intent on drumming up some further recruits for a balmy evening with the Bard.