Friday, 26 June 2009

Travel narrows the mind

Narrow street in Agde

The roads at the ancient heart of Agde are narrow. Sometimes, you can stand in the middle of the street and - if you stretch out your arms  - you touch the walls on both sides. When we first came here a few years ago, you had to hang your rubbish bags on a hook by the front door each evening because the tight little streets were impossible for a bin wagon to navigate. A man with a cart came by at dawn to collect them. These days, there’s a wheelie bin and a nippy little truck comes around each morning to empty it, so there’s no need to hang your rubbish on a hook any more. I miss that a bit. What can I say? I’m a Cancerian. I have an uncomfortable relationship with change.

The narrow streets are shady, even in the middle of the day, with a cool breeze off the Hérault river licking its way up towards the top of the town (we live on la rue Haute, it’s as high as it gets). The houses are built from sombre, volcanic basalt. So sometimes it’s not until you emerge, blinking like a sunscreen-scented mole, into one of the larger squares or onto the quais, that you realise it’s actually 30 ̊C.

The view from the terrace at duskThe view a couple of hours later

Some of the things I love about summer here…

  1. The slip-slap of rush-soled flip flops on a cobbled street.
  2. A cloudy glass of Ricard before dinner. I am yet to try that fiendish-sounding tribute to Hemingway, the Death in the Afternoon cocktail – a measure of pastis poured into a glass of champagne. I think I’ll keep it that way.
  3. Rising early - as soon as the Mediterranean sun curls its way across the floor of our room - and wandering onto the terrace to gaze at an horizon stained the colour of a ripe peach.
  4. Sleeping late. Falling out of bed and into a fat paperback - one of the many that have been sitting undisturbed for months on my bedside table in London.
  5. Swifts circling the house, celebrating their shrieking dawn and dusk patrols, and the seagulls which my friend Avril says, ‘seem to be constantly laughing’.
  6. The house smelling of ripe charentais melons.
  7. Eating flat peaches and cherries at every opportunity, either in their blissfully naked state or piled into sweet tarts on a pillow of frangipane.
  8. Endless small, dark, cups of coffee under the awning of Le Plazza, while listening to the free concerts in the square (one of the benefits of having a communist mayor, sans doute).
  9. Sitting in a smart bar on the marina at Marseillan drinking an icy glass of Noilly Prat approximately 100 metres from where it was made.
  10. Plucking glossy, emerald green bay leaves on the banks of Hérault.
  11. Eating sea salt caramel ice cream on the terrace of Le Commerce and wondering how I could make it at home. This is the reason why I need to go back there almost every day to sample theirs, in the interests of culinary research.
  12. My mother, who can talk about the ancient Phoenecians as though they are sitting at the neighbouring table under the trees outside Le Capitaine, or at the very least about to row past us in a quinquereme.
  13. If I had to have one thing for lunch every day for the rest of my life, it would be a little tartine of grilled cabécou goat’s cheese on a slice of sourdough bread with a trickle of honey and a scattering of toasted pine nuts.
  14. There’s a beautiful roof terrace several streets away which we can see from ours. It’s filled with pots of roses, pelargoniums and pink oleander. The man who owns it is clearly a very keen gardener. Sometimes he likes to do this naked.
  15. The little boy from the gypsy family on the corner - who always looked so sad in his thick glasses and dummy in his mouth, trailing along behind his older brothers as they performed exuberant wheelies on their bikes - has lost the dummy and gained a puppy, a floppy-eared, beagley scrap of brown, white and black fur, which he carries around under his arm all day like a beach towel. Boy and puppy seem very happy together.

What do you love about summer where you are?

Smart doors, scruffy doors, knockers and hinges…

   Door in Agde Door in AgdeDoor in Agde A tiny, hobbity door A hobbit's neighbour Door in Agde Door in Agde Door in Agde Door in Agde Maison d'Estella, Agde Door in Agde Door in Agde Worn old stepsOccitane and Agde symbolsDoor knocker in AgdeDoor knocker in AgdeDoor hinge in Agde

A place where a door once was in a house on the Herault

This is one of my favourite doors in Agde, the heavy basalt door to the Eighteenth Century bakers’ oven in the house where we are staying.

Stone baker's oven door

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Summer on a plate

Roast chicken with potatoes

Summertime, and the eating is easy. Crisp frisée lettuce glistening with mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette, mussels in every way, almost every day, merguez on the grill, earthy Puy lentils tossed with last night’s leftovers and transformed into lunch. These are the things I love.

And now, I have an accomplice. My lovely nephew Angus is here in France with us and he wants to learn how to cook. He is 16, sweet, clever, funny, kind. He is also a keen rugby player, over six feet tall, and tells me he has to eat no fewer than 4,000 calories a day. Apparently not all of these can be in the form of Nutella. This is a new challenge for me, as I spend most of my time trying to figure out how I can stop myself from eating 4,000 calories a day. At least he’s strong enough to help me carry mountains of food up the hill, (almost) without complaint.

We spend our mornings reading the regional newspaper, the Midi-Libre, together. This is of mutual benefit. He’s improving his French and, as we always seem to start with the sports section, I’m improving my knowledge of rugby. Want to know anything about the French back row? Ask me. This is not something I ever thought I would say.

By the time the newspaper is folded away, we’re on to the really big issue of the day: what shall we have for lunch? If it were up to Angus, it would probably be roast chicken. This is the recipe I’ve promised him will impress the girls. I hope you like it too.

Angus’s perfect roast chicken

We buy most of our meat from M Greffier’s Boucherie Artisanale on the rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. I asked M Greffier for a nice, roasting chicken and he enquired how many it was for. I said five, but explained that the towering teenager beside me was included in that number. He raised an eyebrow and came back with the plumpest bird I’ve ever seen, which he wrapped in pink checked paper and then placed in this highly appropriate bag.

J'aime mon boucher!

All wrapped up

200g unsalted butter
1 small bulb of garlic
A good handful of herbs – tarragon, parsley, chervil
A nice, plump, free-range bird of about 1.5-2kg
A bay leaf
A small onion, peeled and cut into quarters
2 lemons
A small glass of white wine
Salt and pepper

You will, if you read this blog, almost certainly want:
Some potatoes

Fresh "wet" garlic The fiery dragon herb, Tarragon

Take the chicken out of the fridge a good 30 minutes to an hour before you want to roast it. Preheat the oven as high as it will go.

Chop most of the herbs and two cloves of the garlic very finely and pound them into a paste with about two thirds of the butter. Carefully loosen the skin of the bird with your fingers and stuff most of the butter underneath it (save a piece about the size of a large walnut), massaging it between the breasts and the skin. Season the inside of the bird with salt and pepper and place the remaining herby butter inside, along with a few sprigs of parsley and tarragon, the bay leaf, onion and the rest of the head of garlic, unpeeled but cut in half horizontally to expose the centre of the cloves. Spread the rest of the butter over the skin of the chicken, season with salt and pepper and place in a roasting tin. Cut the lemon into quarters and squeeze them over the bird. Place the squeezed-out quarters inside the cavity too. Pour the glass of wine into the roasting tin and put the bird into the oven to sizzle for 15 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 and cook for about an hour - Remember to baste it every 20 minutes or so - depending on the size of the chicken, until the juices in the thigh run clear when pierced with a knife. Squeeze over the juice of the remaining lemon, cover loosely with foil and leave to rest for 15 minutes or so before carving. Any you do not eat at the first sitting will remain perfectly flavoursome and moist for leftover sandwiches and salads.

A little bit of butter Mixed with herbsStuffed under the skinThe cavity ctuffingDrizzle with lemon juice 

If you want to make some roast potatoes to go with the chicken (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), peel about 1kg of potatoes, cut them into quarters and parboil them for five minutes in lightly salted water. Drain them and let them steam for a bit in the colander so that they lose some of their moisture. When the chicken is about 25 minutes from being cooked, remove the tin from the oven and place the potatoes around the bird, turning them over in the fat. Return to the oven and when the chicken is done, squeeze over the lemon, put the bird on a warm plate to rest and put the lemon pieces in with the potatoes. Turn up the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6 and cook until golden, giving the tin a rattle once or twice. These potatoes won’t be as crisp as the ones I describe in my classic roast potato recipe but they will be deliciously lemony and bathed in the chicken’s herby juices.

Green beans with onions and garlic

Ready to eat

It’s a common misconception on our side of the Channel that in France, all vegetables are served crisp, al dente (an Italian expression, sure, though I’ve found no greater love of crispness there, either). Certainly, when I’m adding French beans to a salad I want them still to have some bite to them, but when I’m serving them hot as a side dish, there’s something very comforting about cooking them until quite soft and allowing them to take on the flavour of some good stock. Even the queen, Elizabeth David, advocated boiling them in lightly salted water for 15 minutes and then tossing them in about an ounce of butter per pound of beans.

This is not a French recipe exactly, rather one made by me from the contents of our French larder and they went rather well with the chicken.

1 large onion, finely diced
2tbsps olive oil
A knob of butter
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
About 400g green beans, topped and tailed
About 350ml chicken stock
About 50ml crème fraîche or whole milk Greek yoghurt
Small handful of toasted pine nuts or flaked almonds
Some finely chopped mint (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large pan over a medium-low heat. Fry the onions gently, with a good pinch of salt, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another minute or two before pouring over the stock and simmering, partially covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer, with the lid on, for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and boil vigorously for a further 5 minutes until the beans are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated.

In a small bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche or yoghurt with a good pinch of salt (you can add some finely chopped mint at this point if you like). Pour a few spoons of the hot liquid remaining in the pan into the crème fraîche or yoghurt and whisk until smooth. Pour back into the beans and stir to coat and warm through. Stir in the toasted pine nuts or almonds and serve immediately.

Angus Robertson

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Dinner, step by step

Jacob's Ladder

If there’s a person to whom Oscar Wilde’s quotation ‘I can resist anything except temptation’ applies more than it does to my husband Séan, I’m yet to meet him. It is possibly why he asked me to marry him after we’d known one another for only six weeks. It is also why, when I sent him to the farmer’s market to pick up a chicken, he came back with a chicken and a cut of beef called Jacob’s Ladder. He’d heard the butcher discussing a recipe for it with another customer and was intrigued. He is also a person who, when presented with two tempting options, he’ll take both. Just wrap ‘em up, thanks, I’ve got a bag (he’s an eco-hedonist after all).

Jacob’s ladder is a small rack of ribs from the forequarter flank extravagantly marbled with fat and richly flavoured. It’s also known as ‘short ribs’ or, more dramatically, ‘oven buster’ because it swells up when you cook it on the bone, giving you something which looks bigger once you take it out of the oven than when you put it in - not something you can say for grander, more rafinée cuts.

Layers of flavour

The Learmonth brothers from Stock’s Farm in Essex are always great with recipe advice, even when the queue is longer than the one outside Top Shop when Kate Moss introduced her first collection. I knew this was a great braising cut, though I have to admit I was a bit sceptical when Sean explained that to cook it à la Learmonth, we needed to sizzle it at 220C/450F/Gas mark 8 for 20 minutes then turn the heat down to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3 for THREE HOURS. Still, I do like a cut of meat that - with the introduction of a bit of seasoning and heat - does all of the work for you, so I was in. It’s also cheap (our bit cost less than £5), which appeals to my northern thriftiness.

Simple IngredientsRub the paste in wellReady for the oven

I made a quick paste by grinding up some peppercorns, salt, chilli flakes and English mustard powder and mixing it with a slosh of olive oil then I massaged it into the meat. I put it bone-side down in a roasting tin, bunged it in the oven and gave it a little baste every now and again. When I lifted it onto its warmed platter to rest, the flesh was thick and tempting, raised high around the bones which had protruded from the flesh, flaring elegantly at the ends like heraldic trumpets. And it was delicious, meltingly tender, deeply savoury. Though I would say enjoying it at its fullest requires quite a bit of gnawing on bones, so it’s not for those who, as kids, didn’t jump up and down with delight when the Flintstones came on the telly.

How to make perfect roast potatoes

Mr Learmonth also promised Jacob’s Ladder yielded the best fat for roast potatoes. Obviously, in the interests of research, I had to put this to the test as there are few things in the world more wonderful. This is my technique for creating a perfectly crisp, golden exterior and a yielding, fluffy interior. It’s foolproof. It could actually be the reason why Séan wanted to marry me after six weeks.

Peel the potatoes and chop larger ones in half or even quarters if they’re huge. Bring a large pan of water to the boil, toss in some salt then the potatoes and parboil for 5 minutes. While they’re bubbling away, put a roasting tin into an oven preheated to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6, and put a ladle of the beef fat into the tin – you could use goose or duck fat instead if you like.

Drain the potatoes in a colander and allow to steam a bit so they lose some of their moisture. Next, put them back into the saucepan with a good sprinkling of semolina, fine polenta or cornmeal (thank you, Nigella, for this tip), hold the lid firmly on the pan and give them a good rattle to roughen up the edges a bit. Carefully remove the hot roasting tin from the oven and tip in the potatoes – they should sizzle as they go in the pan. Quickly give them a stir so they’re coated in the fat and space them out well in the tin. Return to the oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes, turning once or twice during cooking, until crunchy and golden. Sprinkle with a little flaky sea salt and there you are – potato heaven

Sautéed oyster mushrooms

Pearl & chocolate oyster mushrooms

Séan also found these great coral and chocolate oyster mushrooms at the Gourmet Mushroom stall. I simply sautéed a chopped onion in butter until translucent and soft, raised the heat and tossed in the mushrooms – adding a pinch of salt at this stage, encourages them to lose their moisture quicker. When they’d given up most of their liquid, I threw in a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves and stirred in a good dollop of mascarpone – this is what I had in the fridge, you could use double cream or crème fraîche. Then season with salt and pepper and throw in a few tablespoons of finely chopped herbs – parsley is good, dill is even better, but then I love dill.

Sautéed oyster mushrooms

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

And a big slice of cake goes to …

Mango cake

As a child growing up in a small market town in the north of England, I was obsessed with passport stamps, luggage labels and my parents’ old Bakelite radio in the dining room. I used to lie on the floor and trace my fingers across the etched dial - Rome, Paris, Cairo - it seemed impossibly exotic, almost magical, to me. My grandmother had just retired from her career as a nurse and was determined to see as much of the planet as possible. I used to gobble up her traveller’s tales from Denmark or Greece or Spain like a bowl of perfectly ripe berries.

At school, I was a studious, dreamy, often-inky-fingered kid, usually to be found gazing out of the window waiting for my life to start. On the first day of the autumn term when I was 10, Rosie Sinha came and sat next to me. She had a ripple of glossy hair, shiny and dark as just-poured molasses, and was sweet, funny, clever. She was also good at maths – something I still find amazing in anyone of any age. The kid from Delhi and the kid from County Durham became firm friends.

Once, Rosie’s uncle came to visit from India and brought a crate of mangoes. As she described them her eyes sparkled and she cupped her hands in front of her mouth, as though she were eating one. Well, I was happy for her, sure, but fruit seemed a funny sort of gift unless you were in hospital. When my Dad went on business trips, he’d bring me back comics or chocolate which I loved. That was a proper present.

What a difference a few decades make. Every May, I start stalking our local Indian grocers, waiting for the first Alphonso mangoes to arrive in their crates, little tufts of shredded paper sticking out of the sides protecting the golden fruit inside.

Mango crateWrapped in shredded paperMangoes

I found some today. I bought two cases, not just because I’m greedy - which I am - but because they were all strapped together, still with their British Airways freight sticker clinging to the sides (remember that love of passport stamps and luggage labels?) and it seemed a shame to split them up. After 4,000 miles, fruit can get friendly.

Now, the only practical way of eating an Alphonso mango is over the sink, ideally naked. This is not a perfect solution, particularly if the back of your house is almost all glass like ours is. You could always run a bubble bath, light a few candles and take your mango and a very sharp knife into the tub with you. However you eat them, you won’t be disappointed. Their spicy, honeyed perfume and intensely sweet, rich and creamy flesh is positively addictive.

Really, there’s nothing better than eating them just as they are, but even I can’t eat two crates of perfectly ripe mangoes. So here are a few other things I do with them.

  • Blitz a couple in a blender with a handful of ice cubes, a big dollop of whole milk yoghurt and a squeeze of lime. It’s the breakfast of (culinary) champions.
  • Slice them and serve simply with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
  • Purée three or four in a blender with some lime juice and fold into about a third of their weight of lightly whipped cream to create a luxuriously perfect fool.

Lady de B is coming over this afternoon to discuss menu plans for our friend Paula’s wedding in September, so I thought I’d make a mango upside down cake to nibble on as we discuss the feast. And, ddddddddrrrrrrrrruuuuuummm roll, I want to offer a big slice of cake to my blogging friends who have visited Licked Spoon so often and left such lovely comments since I began this little adventure a couple of months ago. I’ve taken such pleasure in visiting your blogs, too, it’s only fitting that I offer cake (and awards) in return.

Ready, steady, mango…

....served with cream

This is based on a recipe I clipped from Olive magazine a while ago, with a few twists of my own. I added some cardamom, as I often like my sweet things balanced with a bit of spice, but you can certainly leave it out if you prefer.

4 Alphonso mangoes or 2 large mangoes
100g light Muscovado sugar
40g unsalted butter

For the batter:
170g unsalted butter, softened
170g golden caster sugar
3 eggs, 2 of them separated
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
A pinch ground cardamom (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract
60ml milk
1 Alphonso mango, peeled and pureed

To prepare the mangoes, peel them with a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife. Stand them upright on a chopping board and cut down each cheek, as close to the stone as you can get. Put each cheek flat on the board and cut into thick slices or about 1.5cm. Be careful – they’re slippery little so-and-sos.

Peel and stones 

Butter a 24cm solid-bottomed round cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Put the light Muscovado sugar in a small pan with 2tbsps of water and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and continue to cook without stirring until the sugar is syrupy and a deep caramel colour. Stir in the butter and pour immediately into the pan, covering the bottom with an even layer of caramel. Cool then arrange the mango slices in circles over the surface.

What an unsuitable tin

 Now, this is really a case of do as I say not as I do. I was all ready to make the cake when I realised I didn’t have a 24cm solid-bottomed cake tin. I made a half-hearted attempt to convince myself I could cheat by wrapping a loose-bottomed tin very tightly with foil. Take it from me, you can’t. You’ll lose lots of the buttery, caramelly juices which will then have to be scraped from the foil and spooned hastily onto the hot cake. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that  it will drip down onto the oven floor and transform itself into some sort of volcanic gunk you’ll never, ever be able to remove without the help of explosives.

Slices of mango line the tin

Sieve together the flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom if you’re using it. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the whole egg and egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla, then half of the flour. Stir in the milk and puréed mango. Stir in the rest of the flour. Don’t overmix, you want it just to be well combined.

 Puree for the batterMixing Beater

Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks then fold into the batter gently but thoroughly. Spoon over the mangoes and spread with a spatula. Bake until golden and a cake tester comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Cool for no more than five minutes then turn out onto your serving plate. If you leave it in too long, the caramel will set and you’ll be excavating the thing from the tin with a spoon. Eat warm as a pudding, with perhaps a little cream or crème fraîche, or at room temperature with a cup of tea.


Lovely Blog Award

Now, onto the ceremony. First, can I start by saying you all look fabulous (though if you get any Alphonso mango cake on those lovely frocks I’m not responsible for the dry cleaning bills). After receiving this award from the divine Lady P a few days ago, here’s my list of some Lovely Blogs that have me pressing F5 Refresh at a worrying rate, because I can’t wait to see if they’ve updated.

Catherine at Unconfidential Cook who, in her stylish, entertaining blog embodies all that great cooking is about – sharing a delicious plate of food with friends, with a few stories on the side.

Scarlett the Heavenly Healer because I love to see what she’s up to on her organic, biodynamic London allotment.

Fran at A Taste of Tottenham because I like to see what she’s growing too, and also what she’s rustling up in the kitchen because we share a love of Mediterranean flavours.

Dana at Eat This House is a poet from Ithaca, New York, and she writes - as you might expect - beautifully and humorously. I love her easy, tasty recipes.

This is what you’re supposed to do next. Accept the award and post it on your blog, together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link. Then pass it on to up to 15 other blogs that you’ve newly discovered. (Well, I haven’t been doing this very long, and I need to share out my favourites between two awards, so this’ll have to do!). Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.


Sisterhood Award

What a delightful week it’s been. Not one award but two, the second from Catherine at Unconfidential Cook, who has given me a Sisterhood Award. I’m really delighted, Catherine, and I swear I had planned to give you the Lovely Blog award before you showered me with honours!

The Sisterhood Award is given to bloggers by bloggers in recognition of attitude and/or gratitude, and I hope you’ll agree that the three I’ve nominated below do just that.

Lady P at Madly Creative because I love her style, her verve, her wit and her near-addictive ebullience.

Mariana at Through my Kitchen Window because she tells a wonderful story, writes a mouth-watering recipe and when I look at her blog, I can imagine for a little while that I live on a beautiful farm in Queensland Australia.

Wendy at A Life Twice Tasted which, despite it’s name, isn’t about food at all. It’s a fascinating insight into a writer’s daily life. Wendy Robertson’s written shelf-loads of great novels over the years and has taught creative writing to everyone from school children to prisoners. She also happens to be my wonderful, inspirational, brilliant mum.

Now, you three, please put the logo on your blog or post. And it’s your turn to nominate up to 10 blogs. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post and let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog, or sending them an email. Remember to link to the person from whom you received your award.

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