Monday, 26 July 2010

A roast chicken dinner to die for

So one must face the sad truth: I have killed the cucumber. I don’t think it will survive such severe mutilation and to cap it all, the few bottom leaves left now show distinct signs of powdery mildew. God, the frustration, especially as Pa informs me he could go out and pick oooh about 50 or so right now if he wanted. Once more I am reliant on Ma for her cucumber pickle.

Anyway in other garden news things are much more fruitful. French beans, broad beans, potatoes, salads, chard are all ripe for the picking – and freezing if this bounty continues – and even the surprisingly recalcitrant tomatoes are beginning to redden. So to celebrate – and to buffer against the sudden leaden dullness of the weather – I threw together the simplest, most fabulous roast chicken supper.

First, as the legend has it, unwrap your chicken. I then smeared it thickly in goose fat and added an extra tbsp to the bottom of the tin. Season generously and roast according to your own rules.

Cut floury or waxy potatoes into chip-like shapes and par-boil for 5 minutes then drain and steam for a couple of minutes to help them dry out. Then tip them around the roasting chicken and roast for a good 30 minutes before turning. Because the potatoes will need an extra bit of time to crisp while the chicken rests, I tend to give the chicken 20 mins at 210C, then turn the oven down to 190C and chuck in the potatoes. As it was a small chicken, I gave that 40 mins or so before lifting it out of the tin and leaving it on one side to rest. Then spread the potatoes evenly over the bottom of the tin, whack the oven temp up to 210C again and give the chips another 15 mins or so to really crisp up.

Meanwhile, I quickly boiled a mixture of runner and French beans for 4 mins or so in salted water, drained then added a couple of tbsp double cream, a handful of parsley, a squeeze of lemon and some seasoning. I also tossed together a mixture of lettuce leaves and sorrel in a light dressing of olive oil and white wine vinegar.

Plate up: the trick is to put the salad underneath the creamy beans and/or the chicken so that it slightly wilts in the heat and gets coated in creamy, chicken-y juices. Don’t forget to really season the chips. It did much to salve a soul’s guilt.

PS: Any broad beans you have that are getting a bit too large, simply boil them quickly for 5 mins or so then whiz them – grey pods and all – in a blender with olive oil, lemon juice and mint for an instant green hummus. Play around with garlic and parsley too.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Gazpacho for lunch – and a sad tale of thwarted cucumbers

Yesterday being another glorious sunny one, it was time for a little light gardening. I planted a particularly pink zinnia, phlox and finally got my hands on some chocolate cosmos, which I shall duly photograph and blog as they promise to be stunning. Along with the aesthetics I carefully questioned Roger in The Secret Garden about the best thing for a cucumber’s powdery mildew. We agreed on a light fungicidal treatment to be applied once every two weeks – nothing too arduous and given the cucumber was, in all other respects, completely healthy and fruiting, I was hopeful it was just a minor blip. (We also discussed how to get your courgettes fruiting when there seems to be masses of flowers and no actual baby courgettes: cut off the male flower (make sure it has a stalk and not a small budding courgette attaching it to the plant) and thrust it gently but firmly, in a seductive manner, perhaps all the while humming a little Barry White, into the heart of a female flower. Yeah – good luck with that.)

Anyway back to the powdery mildew. The fungicide was apparently quite strong and you only need a tiny bit so I diluted it into a watering can and tipped it over the worst affected leaves. Then I remembered seeing somewhere you were supposed to cut off the worst of it, which made sense, so I applied the secateurs to a particularly thick stem attaching the most mildewed leaves. It took a bit of strength to cut through; that may have been because it was actually the main stem of the plant and within maybe 10 minutes – and despite some emergency first aid involving much swearing and some masking tape – the top 5 ft of the plant wilted and died. On the plus side though, I may have invented the first dwarf cucumber and there is no more powdery mildew.

Feeling much annoyed with myself I stomped back into the kitchen for lunch. Given the heat I wanted something refreshing but more substantial than a salad – gazpacho seemed just the thing. Here’s my version – using the first and perhaps the last of our home-grown cucumbers. It was a sentimental affair.

This makes 2 portions.Whizz up in a blender the following: 4 large tomatoes, skinned and cored; 1/2 a cucumber, peeled; 1/2 an onion, chopped, 1 clove garlic, chopped; basil leaves – as many as you like; 1 slice of stale bread, crusts cut off; 1 tbsp really good red wine vinegar; a good slurp of extra virgin olive oil; up to 500ml water – but go easy with this, adding a little at a time otherwise you may just end up with a lot of water – I only used about 300ml in the end.Once smooth, check the seasoning and you may want to add more oil or basil or vinegar and then chill until needed.

You can of course add peppers – I just didn’t have any – and top with anything like croutons, hard-boiled egg, chopped ham, olives, more basil, whatever you like. Serve very cold in searing heat and really savour the cucumber taste because it may be the last one you get.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A Small Distinction


I damn near fell off my chair on Tuesday morning when I was skipping my way through Tania Kindersley’s blog and found she’d nominated me for a Beautiful Blogger Award. I should say at this point – cue much weeping and Oscar-style histrionics -  that I am an avid fan of Tania’s books and had been searching the web for news of anything she might have written in the last few years when I happened across her blog last spring. I immediately slid on a pair of virtual shades and trenchcoat and in the manner of a lunatic cyber-stalker, bombarded her with messages, including one on her old Facebook page which I’m pretty sure she hasn’t seen, given she’s not a Facebook fan (and I’m hoping that still holds true) and thankfully she hasn’t blocked me yet. Better still she reads this blog (oh shit) which gives me enormous and grateful pleasure. Anyway, it was T who introduced me to this whole blogging malarkey and you can blame her.

I am supremely touched and grateful and determined to do the right thing and pass this on to those whose blogs I treasure.

As Tania and LLG both pointed out the expected 10-15 blogs you’re supposed to pass it on to seems a little daunting, so I shall also stick with six. Also Tania has already awarded it to a couple of blogs I also adore – namely Mrs Trefusis Takes a Taxi for her elegant, concise, considered writing and Miss Whistle for her stunning pictures which never fail to make my morning – I’ve had to think quite carefully, so it’s actually eight in total.

Firstly A Life Reclaimed for her extraordinary bravery and stoicism about a nasty divorce and her absolute truthfulness without distortion. Up The Women, I say.

Life Happens Between Books by Lucy Fishwife whose blogs make me laugh and with whose sentiment I agree absolutely.

Jacob Wrestling – although infrequent – is always worth dipping into for the quirky random nature of her thoughts.

Hollow Legs – A food blog with good pictures and a wealth of information on just the sort of food I love.

Helena Halme – for her fascinating accounts of How I came to be in England and her takes on life in England and Finland.

Food Stories – Helen’s a well-known professional food blogger and with good reason – stonking recipes from a foodie about town.

And now – seven things you may not know. God, the trauma…

1. My life’s dream (hopefully to become reality in two years time in accordance with The Great Plan) is to move to Dorset. This people know. What they may not know (and T – feel free to call the anti-stalking cyber police now) is that the whole reason for this move to a part of the world I have never ever been to is because I read Tania’s Don’t Ask Me Why when I was 18 and was so entranced with her character Virge and her parent's’ house on The Isle of Purbeck that I immediately made the decision that was where I was going to spend my life. Luckily my husband agrees with me, although he too has never been.

2. My other life dream was to marry Gerald Durrell but unfortunately he died before I could fly to Jersey without parental supervision. I have managed to scratch the itch by accidentally contriving to live in Norwood where he lived both pre- and post- Corfu. Incidentally, it also gives me no end of pleasure that my favourite Dickens novel – David Copperfield – also features Norwood, albeit it’s where wet Dora lives.

3. This might actually be obvious but I have a great passion for anything from the glorious, roaring 1920s and actually the Mitford sisters. Nazi sympathies notwithstanding.

4. I spent many of the weekends of my formative years watching Tom Cruise films as Pa and I loved them. I can quote Top Gun verbatim. I’m not sure this isn’t a rather dubious life skill. And that goes for Pretty Woman too – in fact, every time Pa and I are out to dinner somewhere and I have to go to the loo, he says ‘Shall I order for you?’ and I reply ‘Um, yeah. Yes Please do so’. Again, not completely useful but entertaining even after 23 years.

5. I wooed MCD by playing to his Star Wars fixation with a plastic lightsaber from Hamleys. I bought it and left it outside the door of this flat in Elephant and Castle before going all the way back to my own flat in Finsbury Park. If it wasn’t for this, I’m not sure we would have ever got married.  Although he claims this was his wooing technique – getting me to do the work…

6. If I can find an author that makes me heave with laughter, I’m a devotee forever. I just read Emma Kennedy’s The Tent, The Bucket and Me on Whitstable Beach and I had to get up and walk around to relieve my stomach muscles. That goes for people too.

7. I have synaesthesia. So for me time is a very visual concept (I can ‘see’ all the centuries laid out at once in a distinct pattern, as are days of the week and letters of the alphabet are in definite colours. And – call it 7a – I have no sense of smell, so Ma describes smells and perfumes to me in colours and shapes which makes perfect sense. It’s a little schmear of colour in an occasionally black and white world.

There you go. Have a nice weekend.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Trip to the Seaside

First things first: I must say an enormous Thank You to Tania Kindersley at Backwards in High Heels who has nominated me for a Beautiful Blogger Award. I am deeply grateful and quite shy-makingly overwhelmed and I shall give due thought and consideration to this in my next post, once I’ve mulled over my own nominations etc.

Ok, onwards (she mutters, wiping a tear from her eye). We spent the weekend in Whitstable. I should explain it’s one of the things we do – a weekend at the seaside each year, in a spirit of both holidaying at home and satisfying the deep inner need in me to spend some time near the sea each year. I know not where it comes from (actually I might proffer a guess that growing up in the very very middle of England – as far from the sea as you can be might have had something to do with it), but suffice to say our two-year-plan is to move ourselves to Dorset where I can be within a drive of the coast at all times.  It’s my only brief. That and space for a dog or three. I should also point out that due to the fact we stupidly left the camera at home, I couldn’t take any pictures. I tried with my mobile, but the sun was so fearsome everything came out completely bleached, so in lieu of our own and to put the below in context, see here for imagery – keep it up in a separate browser window for ultimate effect.

So, Whitstable. We spent the weekend not doing much more than walking, sitting on the shingle beach (shingle beach is a much more pleasing concept than pebble beach, no? Perhaps something to do with the onomatopeic qualities…), eating and talking – we even bought raffia mats, although MCD drew the line at a shrimping net and bucket and spade, as he does every year, the meaner. The Whitstable Oyster Co is right on the beach and does a mean pint of local cider. Right next door is The Pearson’s Arms, a gastropub by any other name, but here in Whitstable, it’s just a really nice pub serving some excellent food. Try the lamb-ham – cured leg I would guess, which came with fresh raw podded peas (which made me feel like a kid again), pearlescent slices of pickled turnip and spiky notes of radish and watercress. MCD’s potted crab with thick sourdough was singingly fresh, although I personally would have liked a little chilli. Roast turbot came in portions not usually affordable in London with samphire, clams and brown butter. Day-boat cod was coated in a crisp brown batter accompanied by the largest chips I have ever seen. I think they might have just cut King Edwards in half and deep-fried them, but they were indeed cooked through. We could manage no more than a shared portion of elderflower sorbet with some strawberries afterwards and had to aid the digestion of that with a stroll after dinner. Truly lovely.

Make sure you take time to wander the fish market on the harbour. A fillet of hot smoked mackerel in a bun with a schmear of chilli sauce followed by a punnet of cockles or whelks should see you through to 4pm and an ice cream from Sundae Sundae on Harbour Street.

You might have heard of Wheeler’s – it’s a micro-model of Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s in London, if that’s not offensive to either party. At the front is a cold fish and oyster bar where you can perch and order at will. I’d booked a table for an early dinner – last orders at 7pm – and, given its reputation, was expecting, I don’t know, something along the Corrigan line. I’ve never been more surprised. We were shown through from the oyster bar to what looked exactly like someone’s front parlour. Four tables in the dim light with one other couple choosing from the plastic menus. I briefly wondered if I’d got the wrong Wheeler’s. We quickly worked out it was BYO (the clue would be in the lack of wine menu) so MCD was barely to be seen flying out the door in the direction of the wine shop opposite to appear back with a bottle of Touraine rosé which seemed singularly appropriate to the seafood feast we were expecting, but which required a corkscrew to open – a moment of panic while the waitress couldn’t quite find one…

And then the food. Given the simplicity of our surroundings I was expecting it to be reflected in the food. Oysters, fish and chips, steamed puddings. Bring it on, I thought, albeit on one of the hottest days of the year. But no – think brill and crayfish lasagne with a Parmesan cream and asparagus tips; prawn and lobster raviolo with a smoked salmon and lemon cream and a dice of fennel. Mains were no less finessed. Baked hake with sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and crushed potatoes, crisp squid rings and razor clams were a coincidentally Spanish choice and sounded suitably rustic. What I got was three rondels of perfectly cooked hake wrapped in spinach and Serrano ham, a large quenelle of said crushed potatoes with olives et al, two wispily delicate squid rings and a razor clam shell filled with a mirepoix dice of mixed peppers and razor clam meat with a moat of basil oil. MCD’s roast halibut was delicate and I couldn’t begin to tell you what it came with because I wasn’t allowed any, so you’ll have to take his word for it that it was stunning.

We didn’t think we could manage a pudding, but I was persuaded by the cleansing properties of Lemon – three ways. A wee lemon crème brulée with a puddle of lemon sauce at the bottom; a marshmallowy meringue filled with a lemon cream and raspberries and a lemon curd ice cream. MCD just went for the knickerbocker glory – enough said, but it did come crowned with a cherry dipped in caramel. It was cooking of the highest order; by the time we’d finished all four tables were full with customers who were clearly in the know and wanted to keep it secret.

Just as a side alley to the above, rarely have I had the pleasure of meandering up and down such a well-kept, well-served high street; Mary Portas would immediately adopt it as her paragon. I counted no less than three butchers, one fishmonger, three greengrocers all advertising local fruit, various haberdashery and hardware stores, proper cafes, a wee museum as well as the pretty antique and tourist-y shops down Harbour Street. The proliferation of independent shops warms the cockles, indicating as it does a lack of chain-store hyper-malls nearby to drain the life from the high street.

We stayed at Copeland House – a B&B with the most fabulous breakfasts and friendly landlady, Georgina. Go there or rent a holiday cottage (which is our next plan, having been inspired by India Knight’s wedded bliss to the concept) and have an oyster by the sea for me.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Watercress sauce and other matters

A blissful sauce for chicken hot or cold, over a salad or even – as I had the leftovers – knapped over slices of ham and tomatoes on toasted muffins.

Blitz a large handful of watercress in a food processor until a green paste. I also added a small handful of spinach for iron, but you could add rocket or even lettuce. Add a few good dollops of creme fraiche, a squeeze of lemon and season and whizz again until a smooth, green, unctuous sauce. Chill until needed.

This weekend I also had a yen for something smoky sweet and barbecued without the hassle – a take on slow-cooked pork seemed just the thing.

Rub a pork shoulder with the following:

1 tbsp paprika

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1 tbsp cumin

1tbsp chilli powder

1 good tbsp dark brown sugar.

Drizzle in a little oil and mix to a paste. Taste to see whether you want it spicier, sweeter – whatever. You can leave the marinaded pork as long as you want – I had an hour but it would benefit from a day, then slow-cook it in a 170C oven for about 2 hours. You might want to check it every half hour or so in case the sugar starts to burn and completely ruin your roasting tin; in which case stick some foil over it. After about 2 hours (and it will come to no harm after 3) it should be tender and juicy.

While the pork’s resting, whisk together a tbsp each white wine vinegar and cider vinegar, 1 tbsp sugar, a good sprinkling chilli flakes and seasoning. Carve the pork and toss in the dressing before stuffing into bun of your choice with some coleslaw.

On a roll, I made Nigel Slater’s orange and lemon cheesecake from Kitchen Diaries – try substituting the juice of 1 lime for 1/2 a lemon.