Thursday, 9 October 2014

Learning to love the muscat (it didn’t take long)

 

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I now discover I really like the muscat. This is the reverse of that syndrome where you drag home from your holidays a lurid liqueur (it’s almost always a liqueur), the drink that was so delicious over five-hour lunches on the terrace, only to find that back home it has all the charm of a Fairy Liquid daiquiri. I think the Ms Murderous Heels sour puss made the muscat taste of ashes in my mouth.

Anyway, I like it now. So that will teach her.

I’m always on the hunt for small cookbooks, the sort sold to raise funds for the church roof or the local sanctuary for tap-dancing owls, the ones with four-line recipes and no glossy pictures. So I was very happy to find Recettes d’un Petit Village en Languedoc. It’s a collection of recipes from the residents of Saint Xist, a little village in the Aveyron, collated by Denis Cristol to raise money for their twelfth-century priory. It contains a recipe by Régine Fargier for a simple cake made with muscat which, along with a bowl of very pretty purple plums, inspired a bit of tinkering about and this is the result. Try it. It’s very easy and looks impressive. If you like, you can serve it straight away, warm, as a pudding with cream, crème fraiche or custard. Or serve it cold. Whichever way you serve it, naturally a glass or two of muscat goes very well with it.

Plum and muscat cake

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This is really good with the plums, but in summer I imagine it would be really lovely made with peaches or nectarines too.

For the plums:

4-5 plums, just ripe, not too soft
3 tablespoons demerara sugar

For the cake:

250g caster sugar, vanilla sugar if you have it
200g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
250g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
A good pinch of salt
200ml muscat

Some icing sugar for dusting, if you like

Serve with crème fraîche or lightly whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Lightly grease a 23cm springform baking tin and line the bottom with baking parchment. Butter the parchment.

Halve the plums, stone them, and cut each half into four pieces. Toss them with the demerara sugar and line the tin with the pieces of plum. Try to cram them as closely together as possible.

Beat together the sugar and butter until pale and light. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl.

In another, scrupulously-clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form peaks.

Begin to add the muscat and flour mixture to the batter in alternate batches, starting and ending with some of the flour (flour/wine/flour/wine/flour), folding in well with a spatula after each addition.

Fold in a third of the beaten egg whites with a spatula to lighten the batter. Then stir in the rest, lifting the batter with the spatula and gently folding it into the mixture. It should be well combined but you want to keep in as much air as possible. Spoon the mixture over the top of the plums, smooth the top with a spatula, place the tin on a baking tray and bake in the oven for about 55 minutes – a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean. It may need a little bit longer. Put it back into the oven and test every 5 minutes.

Place the cake tin on a cooling rack. Run a palette knife around the sides of the tin but leave it to cool for 15 minutes before releasing the sides of the tin and turning it out onto a plate. Gently remove the base of the tin and the baking parchment; serve warm or cold.

Monday, 6 October 2014

All change


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A nice, neat plait of violet garlic, which cost a satisfying €5.

Here’s the thing. As soon as I arrive in France, I transfer a credit card and some nice, crisp Euro notes from my large, London wallet to my small, zipped holiday purse. Within an hour of running about to buy fruit and yoghurt, loo paper, bottles of wine and water, and stopping to refuel with coffee, rosé or Ricard, with a reasonable aim and a little luck that little purse could take out a rhino. It weighs as much as a brick.

I suffer from a fear of change. Not merely an antipathy for altering circumstance (though I confess that I was embarrassingly tearful when our beloved hardware shop closed), but a fear of change, monnaie, coin.

I’ll be standing in a queue with my shopping basket, hopeful that this time I’ll make it, this time I will be able to suffer the patient or impatient gazes of the greengrocer, supermarket checkout man, lady in the newspaper shop, queue of locals snaking along behind me, for long enough to count out €2.87, €4.26 or €1.42. And in this fantasy of coin-based confidence, I will be able to perform these mathematical gymnastics without having to dig my glasses out of the very last, most secret and difficult-to-access compartment in my handbag. Ta da! Watch the amazing counting lady, marvel at her fearlessness.

Let’s forget for a minute the one, two and five cent coppery pieces, which surely must cost more to manufacture than they’re worth (Tip: they make excellent curtain weights). It’s the brassy 10, 20 and 50 cent pieces that push my queuing anxiety into overdrive. They’re of an almost identical size and colour and yes, yes, I know there is some tricksy system of grooves around the edge, a half-arsed attempt to help you to distinguish one from another, but really? Enough of this coin-based parlour game. Europe, please could you be the change I wish to see in the world and make the coins substantially different from one another? Perhaps cover the tens in glitter, make the twenties into a flower shape, the fifties play a happy tune (I suggest Ode to Joy is something we could all get behind)?

Until then, I have two choices. One, take on the habit of the very, very young or the very, very old – fill my hand with change and rely on the kindness, patience and honesty of strangers to pick out what the need. Two, my preferred method, just drag out another note and hope for the best. This works, but like all forms of instant gratification, there’s a price. In this case, a little zippy purse overflowing with a pirate’s ransom of coins.

The other day my mother, who is quite terrifyingly clever, said ‘Oh, I’ve cracked that.

‘What, what?’ I asked, excited over what was no doubt a terrifyingly clever solution.

‘I keep all of my notes in my wallet and five euro coins in my pocket,’ she said.

‘And what about all of the small change?’ I said.

‘That? I just leave all that on my dresser.’

Sometimes Terrifyingly Clever is no help at all.

Roasted garlic

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Roasted garlic. Simply squeeze the softened cloves onto pieces of bread. So good. Don’t forget to mop up the cooking juices with more bread too.

I was very excited to buy plaits of garlic – rose garlic, violet garlic, regular garlic - from the stall in Agde market on my last trip, not just because it’s delicious, but also because they cost a nice, round €5 each. No change.

Roasting whole heads of garlic is so easy and it makes a good starter or easy lunch with some salad and bread.

Per person:

a whole head of garlic, unpeeled but outer papery layer removed
a splash of white wine
a small bay leaf
a sprig or two of thyme or lemon thyme
a knob of butter and/or a splash of olive oil
some salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.

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Place a small bay leaf, some thyme, a splash of oil and a bit of white wine into the bottom of a small dish. Put a head of garlic on top. Place a knob of butter on top of the garlic or trickle on a little more olive oil. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Seal tightly with foil. (My little dishes have lids, so I bung these on top too. Belt and braces.) You can also do quite a few heads of garlic all together in one dish, of course, just make sure you cover it tightly with foil.

Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the cloves. The flesh should be very tender indeed when pierced with a small, sharp knife. If it’s not soft enough, just put it back into the oven for a bit and check again every 5 minutes or so. Remove the foil and lid if your dish has one, and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes. Serve hot.

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I love the papery skins.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

On not visiting vineyards

 

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For years and years and years, I’ve spent part of the summer in the south west of France, where the Hérault river and the Canal du Midi tip into the Mediterranean. If I were working for the tourist office, I would tell you this region enjoys more days of sunshine than anywhere else in France. Fat, minerally oysters from the étang du Thau are as cheap as sardines. From the air, dusty terracotta-roofed towns and villages poke out from the ragged corduroy of vineyards.

In all of these years and years and years, I have never visited a vineyard. Not a single one. I have kept secret from my family that I’d rather do almost anything else, as this revelation most certainly damages my cred d’épicure.

This is me: ‘Oh, I’d love to, I really would, but I need to finish my book/make something incredibly complicated requiring reductions and foams for lunch/regrout the bathroom tile. No, don’t let me stop you. You go, GO…Have a LOVELY time.’ Wave, slam door,relax.

In my working life I’ve visited dozens of vineyards, from the vastly vatted to one so adorable that in the movie of her life, the young wine maker would most certainly be played by Juliette Binoche, circa 1998. On these occasions, half a dozen or so crumpled journalists uncrease themselves from air-conditioned mini buses to be greeted by a selection of good vintages, daunting rows of twinkling glasses and sometimes smears of something olive-y on toast or a plate or two of excellent ham. They’re expecting you. They have their game face on.

When people tell me of their holidays in France or Italy or Spain where they, oh, you know, just drive through the countryside, stopping here and there at these tiny rural places, tasting as they go, picking up wonderful cases of a little-known red or white or sparkling, a bit of me twists with embarrassment.

I would no more zip, unannounced, along the rural lane to someone’s house than I’d knock on your door tonight and expect you to give me my tea. What if, what if, what if? What if you’re feeding a dying kitten with a pipette? Making love to someone irresistible but wholly unsuitable? Mugging up on fractions so you will forever remain a genius in the eyes of your ten-year-old? I wouldn’t want my desire for an inexpensive yet versatile rosé to get in the way of any of that so sorry to bother you, sorry, I’ll be going now. Bye. Bye. Bye.

But this summer, a friend who knows about these things recommended a local producer who made a really good muscat. It wasn’t one of these up-a-lane places either, so the risk of a kitten/pipette situation was negligible.

On the last day of the holiday, in between taking the dog to the vet for his €50 pat on the head (seriously, if two minutes on table and a scribble in a book is all it takes to stop rabies, I don’t know what we were all so worried about), buying trays of peaches for jam from the roadside stall and running to the supermarket for cheap sea salt, Marseilles soap flakes and tins of confit de canard, I broke the habit of a holiday and caved in for a cave visit (sorry).

We pitch up in the neat car park of an office building so bland, in England it might have been the headquarters of somewhere selling air conditioning or paper products. It is clear to anyone with eyes that there are no dying kittens on the premises. Fine.

Inside, bottles glisten on glass shelves. A young woman (tight white shirt, tailored trousers, murderous heels, oppressively straightened hair - one of those people who, just by breathing in and out, has the capacity to make you feel grubby) taps at a keyboard. It’s very quiet. The slap-slap of our flip flops on the stone floor sounds indecent.

Murderous Heels Woman looks up but doesn’t move. ‘Can I help you?’

Séan mutters something about muscat.

‘You want to TASTE it?’

Not now, bitch, I’m thinking, but we have set in train a series of events that I realise could easily conclude with me screaming ‘LET’S BUY ALL OF THE WINE. ALL OF IT!’ That’ll show her.

In the end, because I married a good and reasonable man, we bought a single, face-saving case of wine neither of us loved but, as my grandmother would have said, I’m sure will come in handy. And no kittens died which, in the circumstances, is the very best we could have hoped for.

 

Winegrowers’ potatoes

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I first read about this splendid and substantial combination of bacon, potatoes and cheese as something which was fed to workers during the grape harvest to keep them going. I scatter a little sage over mine as I love it with all of the above ingredients, though that’s not traditional. If you love it too, add it. If you don’t, leave it out. It makes a great lunch with a salad of peppery and/or bitter leaves – rocket, watercress, mizuna, raddiccio, frisée are all good – and a dollop of French mustard.

Serves 4

Some butter or goose fat
About 300g streaky bacon, unsmoked or a combination of smoked and unsmoked, rind removed
About 600g potatoes, peeled (I used Maris Piper)
About 130g Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
4-6 small sage leaves, finely shredded, optional
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Rub the inside of an ovenproof frying pan* of about 20cm diameter with some softened butter or goose fat. Line the pan with the bacon, letting the ends fall over the sides and pressing the rashers together so there are no gaps.

Slice the potatoes very thinly with a sharp knife or a mandolin, as for dauphinoise. Rinse them in cold water and pat them dry with kitchen paper or a clean tea towel.

Layer a quarter of the potatoes on top of the bacon. Season and scatter on some sage if you’re using it. Dot with a bit of butter or goose fat and scatter on a third of the grated cheese. Continue with the layers until you've used everything up, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pull the bacon up over the potatoes and press everything with your hands so it's all quite firmly mushed together. Dot a bit more butter or goose fat over the top. Cover tightly with a couple of layers of foil (I put a lid on it too).

Warm the pan for about 20 seconds on the hob over a high-ish heat so the fat begins to render then place the pan on a baking tray and bake in the oven for about an hour. The potatoes should be really tender when pierced with a small, sharp knife. If they’re not, return it to the oven for a bit, checking every 5 minutes or so. Remove it from the oven and let it stand for 15 minutes before turning out onto a plate or board.

*Or wrap a non-ovenproof handle tightly with a few layers of foil.

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Line the pan with bacon.

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Pat the potatoes dry.

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Season, then dot the potatoes with sage and goose fat or butter.

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Scatter with cheese.

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Press everything together and dot the top with a little more goose fat or butter.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Back-of-the-fridge dinners


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Sunday is when I run errands. I start early at the flower market, then on to Fabrique to pick up some bread for the week and a couple of cardamom buns for Sunday tea, next The Turkish Food Centre on Ridley Road for yoghurt, feta, olives, spices and finally - nearly home - the greengrocers’ for big bunches of herbs, fruit and veg. Sorry if this is beginning to sound a bit Goop. I warn you it’s not going to get much better. If it helps, you would almost certainly be horrified at the state of my jump-out-of-bed-and-get-going fashion stylin’.

To make room for all of the fresh stuff, on Saturday I rummage through the fridge and cupboards for anything that needs using up. Ends of cheese, wilting half heads of celery, softening spinach, dairy leaping over its sell-by date, olives lurking at the bottom of tubs, a remembrance of drinks parties past, everything short of a biohazard ends up in salads, soups, casseroles or pies. There is a pleasing randomness to Saturday night tea at our house. Here is this weekend’s experiment.

Saturday night chorizo and fennel

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A few slightly vintage chorizo sausages, some bulbs of less-than-perky fennel, a bendy leek and a stick of celery I could almost certainly have wrapped into a bow if I’d so desired were the inspiration for this supper. Take your time browning the fennel and softening the onions – it really adds to the flavour. If I’d had some feta lurking at the back of the fridge, I’d have crumbled that over the top at the end too.

Serves 4

3 bulbs of fennel
A few tablespoons of olive oil
250g cooking chorizo, cut into 4cm chunks
3 onions, finely diced
1 leek, white and pale green part only, finely sliced
1 stick of celery, finely diced
3-4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red chilli, finely minced – remove the membrane and seeds if you like a milder flavour
2 teaspoons ground cumin
200ml white wine
100ml red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato purée
400g tin chopped tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes
400ml chicken stock
Small bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed, finely chopped
Small bunch of coriander, tough stalks removed, finely chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Trim any brown bits off the fennel and save any fronds to finish the dish. Cut each bulb into 6-8 wedges lengthways, depending on its size. Keep the root and core intact so the wedges hold together.

Warm a splash of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed casserole over a medium heat and sauté the chunks of chorizo until they take on a bit of colour then remove them to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon – you want to leave enough of the nice, red, spicy fat in the pan to fry everything else. Raise the heat a bit and put the fennel wedges into the same pan. Sauté on both sides until they take on some colour. You’ll have to do this in a couple of batches. As each wedge is done, put it in the bowl with the chorizo.

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Make sure to get the fennel nice and golden.

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I love these tinned tomatoes.

When you’ve cooked all the chorizo and fennel, lower the heat and tip the onions and leek into the same pan. Add a pinch of salt and cook, stirring from time to time, until very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the celery and sauté for a further 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chilli and cumin and sauté, stirring, for a minute. Pour in the wine and vinegar and simmer quite hard until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the tomato purée, chicken stock and tinned tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the reserved chorizo and fennel, cover and simmer gently for 30 minutes until the fennel is very tender. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 5-10 minutes until thickened slightly. Season, stir in the coriander, parsley and any reserved fennel fronds and serve.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Welcome Home Breakfast Eggs


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I spent most of the summer, with a little back and forth, in south west France. You’d think a person couldn’t live on oysters, peaches and rosé alone but I’m here to tell you if you try very hard and put in the hours, you really can. As delightful as that sounds and, hell, is, I miss Hackney - my dearest, dirty, cranky and sometimes just plain weird belovèd - when we’re apart too long. I miss being able to eat lunch whenever you want, a petition on every counter and a pop-up on every corner, I miss the bearded boys and the tattooed girls and being able to buy five different kinds of anything you want at midnight.

And I definitely miss Turkish food. When I come home, I like to have breakfast at one of the many cafés on Stoke Newington High Street. In summer, I’ll take the trad plate of olives, feta, tomatoes, cucumber, tomato, boiled egg and simit bread with honey. Around about now, I choose menemen, a combination of hot peppers, tomatoes and chillies with scrambled eggs.

Even on cold days, I sit at a pavement table. This isn’t just because I usually have my dog with me, but because it’s all the better to watch the neighbourhood theatre: the boys in the barbers’ having precise and elaborate patterns shaved into their hair, skateboarders whizzing past (cue Barney: ‘BARK BARK BARK’), young couples with buggies, old ladies wheeling bags of laundry, the women in the flower shop arranging their pavement display and old men absent-mindedly working colourful tesbih, or worry beads, through their fingers. If I’m really lucky, I might see a Turkish wedding – so much mascara, so much hair, so much satin, so many metres of ribbon looped into festive decoration on newly-polished cars.

This weekend, as I sat over my breakfast menemen, I thought about how I always feel more inclined to make new resolutions in autumn than I do in the dreary milk-thistle-laced days of January. I may not have name tapes, new socks and sharpened pencils but I have new ideas and intentions. One of these is to post more here about my favourite things: daily life here in east London and all of the time I spend in France. I hope you’ll come along with me, jump in, comment, and tell me about some of your own favourite things. I’d love to hear about them.

Autumn in East London

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Graffiti in Abbot Street, Hackney.


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Tree with a hole in it, Clissold Park.

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The beginning of the football season, Emirates Stadium, when we still dare to hope.

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Chillies, autumn flowers and leaves in the kitchen.


Yellows and Golds at Columbia Road Market

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Yellow mums.

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Chinese lanterns.


Turkish Breakfast Eggs

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You can add spicy sausage or bacon to this if you like. You can also poach the eggs in the sauce rather than scramble them. You sometimes see this described as menemen, but it’s really shakshouka. If you’d like to make a poached version, make small wells in the thick sauce with the back of a spoon, tip an egg into each well and put a lid on the pan for a few minutes until the whites are just set.

1 tablespoon olive oil
A knob of butter
2 red onions, halved and finely sliced
2 red peppers, halved, cored, deseeded and sliced (it’s more usual to use a combination of red and green, but red its what I had and I prefer it anyway)
3 garlic cloves, finely grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped – leave in the seeds and membrane if you like a little heat
4 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and finely diced – don’t bother to skin or deseed them
A good pinch of sugar
Some chilli flakes (optional)
4 eggs, seasoned and lightly beaten
A small handful of parsley, tough stalks removed and chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil and butter in a frying pan approximately 20cm diameter over a medium heat until the butter has melted and stopped foaming. Add the onion, peppers, garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt and fry, stirring from time to time, until everything is softened. This should take about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and sugar. Stir and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thickened – you want it to be rich, and not watery at all. Taste, season and add a pinch or two of chilli flakes if it’s not fiery enough for you.

Season the eggs with salt and pepper and pour them onto the vegetables. Don’t stir them at this point. You want them to set a little before you stir them into the eggs. At the last minute, just before serving, give everything a brief stir, scatter with parsley and eat with bread.

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