Entries in food (10)

Wednesday
Jun132012

clearing

Blue warmth briefly breached the clouds so I took the chance to get into the garden. The slow and calm of tying in roses and the satisfying clip and pull of dead-heading made me hum out loud. That's a good sign. A precursor to the singing that will mark my full ascent to ground level. 

Buoyed by the pleasures of that outdoor tidy and trim I searched for a little something I could do in the house. Ignoring all the large, dull piles that are accumulating this week I settled instead on the smallest, and happily gathered all our recent beach finds into a jar for Joel. 

And so the morning passed until it was time for coffee. With biscuits of a kind I only eat on my own as I like to nibble away all the edge chocolate first in a way that seems unseemly in a grown-up. And a read through the new book I bought after taking Denise's counsel on my last post. The bracing blue against red made it irresistible and brought to mind summer and all things good.

I found more clear sky in Simic's words. The blue in the cloud, the light in the stone. Hope.

 

Stone 

[...]

I have seen sparks fly out

When two stones are rubbed,

So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;

Perhaps there is a moon shining

From somewhere, as though behind a hill - 

Just enough light to make out

The strange writings, the star charts

On the inner walls.


Charles Simic

 


Thursday
May032012

thinking about clams

Venice is one of those cities, like San Francisco and Stockholm, that I slipped into so easily that coming home felt wrong. Even the greenly dank smell of the water didn't worry me. I accepted it like the little flaws you secretly like in someone you love. Evading the crowds who trod heavily round the same few streets, the pleasures of getting lost amidst the back streets were heightened by the frequent discovery of a tiny deserted church with a centuries old fresco. I dreamed of training in fresco restoration and spending my life there. Sitting quietly with a prosecco in a neighbourhood square, watching the life move around us, we talked of how easy it would be simply not to go home. 

But for all the many good memories I have attached to Venice, surprisingly few of them are culinary. Some of the most disappointing Italian food I've eaten has been in Venice. There are glorious exceptions. Plates of cicchetti served in little bars full of raised voices and crowded with office workers. Gefilte fish eaten in on the canal side in Cannareggio. Little polpetti that were so hot and fresh that we burned out mouths in haste and greedy hunger. And the best spaghetti al vongole. There were no tomatoes or chilli - just a lot of garlic and wine and a soft, leafy green that lay across the clams like a little blanket and melted on contact with your tongue.

Listening again to this programme, I determined to celebrate all things Venetian with my own tribute to that vongole. Chard will be my leafy green, and I'll use a heavy hand with the garlic and the wine bottle. And I've just remembered there's a bottle of prosecco in the larder from the days when it was actually spring - hurray! It's so cold and grey here that a little feast is just what's needed. What are you cooking tonight?

Sunday
Feb122012

hindsight

I spent Saturday with a friend I rarely see alone. As we wandered through the busy streets and in and out of vintage clothes shops, we caught up on each other's lives and plans and vacillating priorities. As that point in the afternoon when the sun dipped and the air cooled further, we stopped for a cortado in a fashionable new coffee shop and talked longer and deeper. Then a moment when I realised how far I've come in tamping down my people-pleasing tendency, but also that I could have strayed too far the other way.

A waitress reached silently between the two of us and snatched my (not yet empty) glass away. I reached out silently to take it back. Something in my look made her step back, silently, and stand there a moment or two longer at my shoulder after I'd turned away. Then she moved on. I found Nicole watching me wryly. All she had to do was ask first. I've been a waitress: I would have asked. I still care what people think of me and I care what I think of me. I should have acted with more grace. Does it make it better that I'm thinking of it even now? 

 

Sunday
Feb052012

snow 

Even though the sky was thickening we didn't dare get our hopes up. But late afternoon, home from the planetarium and with eyes full of black holes, small flakes began to fall. By evening, the unmistakeable silence that comes with snow had settled and we could relax, knowing it would be enough. Though a few days late. These last years the first snow has fallen during the night before Joel's birthday and that opening of a curtain to unexpected whiteness has been the first present. But it's worth waiting for that day of exhausting sledding down our long hill and snow fights. 

The sun is too warm though for the snow to last. Already, the whole hill has reverted to green though the lake remains weakly frozen. Yesterday, snowed home from school, we watched a heron lifting off from the still-running stream in the stillness of the snow, trailing long, awkward legs.

Today, the garden is busy with birds readying for spring. Looking out on my peaceful, if quietly active garden, with workmen sizing up the fireplace for another wood burner, I'm accommodating the incongruity of listening to a news report of the bombardment of Homs with defiant birdsong still audible amongst the blasts of mortars. It reminds me of the recording of the song of the nightingale in a Surrey garden - not too far from here - through which can be heard the drone of the bombers flying on a raid during the second world war. I'm not sure if that juxtaposition of bird and bomber lifts my heart or makes me despair more.

A male blackbird eyes me through the window as if to inquire about the too-soft grapes that usually make their way outside at around this time. I know I'm grateful to be halfway through an ordinary day with its ordinary preoccupations: supper tonight, schools, the deepening creases at the corners of my eyes. The vague, ungrateful dissatisfaction that my lunchtime bowl of leftover thai-spiced spinach and potato curry was just a little too small for my big hunger today - until sharp lime pickle brought me to my senses. 

I wish you an ordinary day. 

Monday
Nov072011

oranges not lemons

top photo: our house, second photo: house in wales, third photo: wisley, fourth photo: my feet, not my house (National Theatre London)

Growing up in the seventies, orange was a familiar sight on clothes and in homes. One house we lived in was painted orange outside. In another, the entire kitchen was orange. Even the floor was an orangey terracotta. You had to look up or out to rest your eyes on any other colour (I'm drawn to add that it was that colour when we moved in but also to concede that it was still that colour when we moved out again...) And if it wasn't orange, it was brown. Brown carpets, brown cars, brown cord trousers. 

Nowadays, in our white worshipping society, you don't see orange around so much. But it seems you can't fight genes. It happens to be my boy's favourite colour so I've felt compelled to use it around his room and in splashes around the house. Last year, I stretched some orange bird-printed IKEA fabric over a very large handmade wooden frame as a cheap (temporary, I thought) hanging on one of our high, breakfast room walls, but it's still there. We took it down, replaced it with more tasteful this and that, but the wall looked so lonely and cold without the vivid splash of colour so it's back up again, reflecting warmth back into the room. It's cheer-making, especially when the days outside are increasingly grey.

This bonfire weekend was heaven for orange lovers and as a contribution to a bonfire feast I made an orange saturated almond cake. Similar to the lemon cake I mentioned previously but moister, it's been a staple of ours for years as you can cook it in advance and let it really soak in the juices or whizz it up quickly on the night as I did, making it a lighter and drier affair. I like it straight with coffee but it sits very happily alongside ice-cream or crème fraîche and simply gets more richly delicious and moist over a number of days.

The recipe below is based on Claudia Roden's orange almond cake, the main difference being that the oranges are squeezed and zested rather than boiled and used whole, so it's that bit quicker to make.

Ingredients

4 eggs, separated

125g caster sugar

grated zest of two oranges

100g ground almonds

For the syrup

juice of four oranges (add an extra one if you want more syrup to pour)

125g caster sugar

a good splash of brandy or cointreau (though equally happy without it)

Preheat oven to 180C/350 F/gas mark 4. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar, orange zest and almonds.

Beat the egg whites until stiff, and fold into the yolk mixture. Pour the mixture into a greased and floured loose-bottomed cake tin.

Bake for 45 mins until golden brown. Meanwhile, place orange juice, sugar and brandy (or whatever) in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 mins.

Pierce the cake all over, then pour over the syrup and leave to soak in. Jug any extra: rest assured, it will all be used.

 

By now your kitchen will be full of orangey deliciousness and November will seem a pleasant time of year. Enjoy.

 

Wednesday
Oct262011

everything's rosy

  

I had an unexpected little hour of happiness the other day that began with the discovery in a second-hand bookshop of The Pocket Encyclopaedia of Roses. Emerging into a suddenly blue sky with a spare half hour, I sat outside my favourite cafe and ate Swedish carrot cake. It had a cheery little icing carrot on it and I admired the extra effort. So I sat happily in the sunshine and ate and sipped and read about roses.

Published in 1963, it's a technicolour beauty. The styling is so of its time it's easy to imagine those formal displays sitting alongside a table set with wine bottle candleholders, a bit of Engelbert Humperdink on the wooden record cabinet and a hostess (already hot in her long, patterned, polyester gown) worried if moussaka is a little 'foreign' for a dinner party. My favourite bit of the book though are the descriptions of the roses themselves. Clustered together, they read like characters from a play.

Emily Gray : shapely buds golden yellow opening to buff. summer flowering. foliage small, dark and glossy. vigorous but inclined to die-back.

Cecile Brunner : blooms miniature and perfectly formed. bright pink, yellow base. fragrant. foliage sparse, dark greeen. growths long and slender.

Countess of Dalkeith : vermillion flushed orange flowers. very fragrant. bushy growth of average height. an attractive variety but similar to parent, subject to black spot.

Hugh Dickson : rich crimson shaded scarlet. very fragrant and recurrent. growth vigorous and upright, and best grown as semi-climber. unsuitable for formal beds.

John S Armstrong : blooms large and flat, freely produced on good stiff stems. attractive colouring, rich scarlet crimson. slight fragrance. foliage dark green and plentiful. a vigorous variety of good habit.

I see myself sneaking into the action as Clair Matin: blooms medium size, cupped, semi-double, slightly fragrant. pink. moderately vigorous, best suited for pillar...

 

Tuesday
Sep202011

and it was all yellow

 Today finds me slightly obsessed with lemons. Starting the day with a slice in hot water just wasn't enough and I've been piling it into green tea too. After a brief detour into the thick darkness of espresso, I got back on track with a lunch saturated with lemony flavours. The cupboard being a bit threadbare I ended up stirring two large fists of parsley into a bowl of bulghur wheat, gave it a good soak with lemon juice and a dash of olive oil and topped the lot with a scattering of home-salted almonds. Delicious. I may have made noises of joy while I ate; I certainly ate much faster than I'm sure is considered proper.

Now I'm trying to fight back an urge to whip up one of Rachel's heavenly almond and lemon cakes. I simply don't trust myself today not to eat the lot the moment it cools enough to handle. It does get more stickily delicious if you do as she suggests and leave it for a couple of days. But if you were to have a little slice or two before then (just to check it's ok - ahem) it's still bliss. If you haven't yet tried her recipe, I would urge you to. Preferably on a day when your body isn't seeking to maximise its levels of vitamin C. And so to supper - linguine with a little oil, basil, pecorino...and lemon.

 

Tuesday
Jun212011

rich rewards


There was bunting. There was fizzy stuff. There was lovely food and more wine and warm sun and presents. The crostata passed muster. All in all there was the stuff needed for John to have a happy birthday. Surreal moments included the assembled family stumbling their way through a deceptively difficult Italian children's tune about bells that Nonna is determined Joel will learn, with the reward that when he does 'we can move on to a lovely song about fruit'. Cricket played with sticks that shortened after each stroke. Dogon the sweet natured greyhound sighing and groaning with thwarted ecstasy at the chicken bones just out of reach.

I got lumbered with the washing up so rewarded myself with wine to sip after each water change. And since Dogon was my kitchen companion, he finally received his own reward for patience beyond the call of duty and had a little plate of meaty joy.

Lastly, coffee and eton mess and a bit of a relax in the warmth of the early evening sun. A gentle way to contemplate the fact that another year has passed.

Saturday
Jun182011

light and dark

 

My day, my moods and my writing seem to be overly influenced by the weather at the moment. I realise, too, that the photos I post are sunny when I complain about rain. That's because the sun will shine in sudden bursts that illuminate the house in stripes of light and, generally, the skies relax in the early evening, resulting in long low shafts of sun across the lawn and through the bottom of the trees. I love the light then. But when it's taken away we're thrown from bright sunshine to a sudden darkness that needs lights to be switched on to avoid feeling like we're living in a cave.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the weather is reflecting my shifting moods as much as influencing them. This week I'm too easily thrown from light to dark and long for the simplicity of a day where skies and moods are even and predictable.

Today wasn't one of those simple days. A morning party for Joel and an afternoon of baking. Or rather, sweating anxiously over my first attempt at a birthday staple in John's family, the crostata. My grandmother taught me that pastry must always be made in a relaxed, unhurried state. That wasn't the state I found myself in. Returning from the party, distracted by the ludicrously bedraggled, wet and muddy alpaca massing around the fence to greet us, I reversed the car into the corner of our wall. At the time I was impersonating their high-Andean accents so, really, there is no excuse. And for my childishness there is now a largish hole in the bumper that irritates me every time I have to open the boot.

It isn't hard to make a simple jam crostata but it's been made by John's Italian mother for family birthdays for nearly 50 years so to take it on this year was, well, a little intimidating.  Emerging eventually from the oven (having had to whip up an additional batch of pastry owing to certain .. technical issues) with something that at least looked like a crostata, I worked off my nervous energy with a vigorous pillow fight with Joel. You'll notice perhaps that there isn't a photo of the crostata. I covered it ready for tomorrow and I'm damned if I'm looking at it again until then.

Sunday
May222011

reasons to be cheerful (part 2)

 

 All human life has its seasons and cycles, and no-one's personal chaos can be permanent. Winter, after all, gives way to spring and summer, though sometimes, when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, and that summer, but they do, and always.       Truman Capote

 

While I wait for the silver lining to reveal itself, I thought I'd share some small things that generally make a not-so-great day a little better for me.

Firstly, good coffee in my favourite cup. After a lot of experimentation with fancy brands, I find myself returning to Lavazza ready-ground for a strong morning hit when I need to get moving quickly. With a little more time I like to grind my own beans. Their cool, slippery oiliness in the hand and the aroma as they turn to powder really gets my senses going. If you love coffee and find yourself in London, drop into the Monmouth Coffee House in Covent Garden, or fuel up at their shop in Borough before entering the gastronomic powerhouse that is Borough Market.

Another source of bliss and joy is a new magazine. I'm a magazine obsessive, reading everything from fashion glossies to interiors to travel and fine art and craft journals. If (disaster!) I'm at the end of the month mag-wise and there is nothing new to be found, I trawl through my admittedly substantial stack of back copies. I tear and file articles to keep, rip out images to make notecards, and just generally lose myself for a bit.

Then I get out my camera and prowl around, even if it's just in the house. It's the looking that's key and I always end up with something that lifts me. A shadow, colours, a shift of sky or a detail that makes me smile.

Ending the day with a glass of icy cold wine in the bath, something funny to watch and a bit of a back rub makes it easier to believe that tomorrow will bring with it sunshine - and silver.

What little things makes your day better?