Green asparagus seems to be a rarity in our part of France which surprises me as it features on the menus of many local restaurants at this time of year whilst, in the shops, it remains as rare as an interesting conversation about the election. It may be that our bucolic little corner of France is so deeply rustic that, in the infuriating policyspeak of the retailer, “there is no call for it”. I have called loudly for it, but answer was there none.The best that one can hope for is to grab one of the few bundles of green spears that appear, momentarily, among the piles of fat and pallid sex toys known as white asparagus. Maybe this part of the Common Market is too common for the delicacy of fine, green asparagus, although I’m pretty sure that the word “common” is not in favour with the politically correct. “Posh” is, but “common” isn’t. A good example of would be “Posh Spice” as opposed to “Slightly Less Common Spice”, the latter being positively proscribed….do not go there. Moving on; when one is lucky enough to fall upon a bunch of the green stuff there is, in this season, the added pleasure of knowing that, nearby, will be piles of the most delicious young potatoes from the Île de Noirmoutier. Potatoes such as these make perfect partners for green asparagus, particularly if gobs of melting, sweet butter are included in the equation…these flavours trumpet the arrival of Spring and bring a smile to my face.
Among the many things with which I am familiar but, on closer examination, about which I know next to nothing, is the Bible. I undoubtedly absorbed more from Cecil.B,DeMille’s version of Biblical events than I did from the hours of instruction, through which I day dreamed, by raw boned Jesuits who were determined by hook or by beating to inculcate into me the cant and dogma that made their own lives so very miserable. However, I do remember plenty of interesting culinary tidbits from the good book. I’m sure there was a mistake in the ingredient list of loaves and fishes as I think that the amount mentioned would only feed 6-8….well worth remembering should you have invited 5,000 or so to come round for a bite. Chocolate seems to have been missed out completely in the chapter about Easter but they do mention a very French sounding Pascal the lamb….God alone knows how many he was meant to have fed, but it’s probably as exaggerated as the loaves and fishes episode. Here in France, where State takes precedence over religion, they’ve changed Pascal’s name to Gigot…well, they named his back leg Gigot…and that’s what I cooked on Chocolate Sunday ( sometimes spelled with an “e”) to celebrate the rabbit that was born from an egg.
Gigot and English Roast Leg of Lamb are, biologically, one and same thing and there the similarity ends. There is no “well done” gigot, nor is there the need to serve it with mint sauce and redcurrant jelly or with a selection of 4 or 5 different vegetables. The “pile it high” concept of Sunday lunch is not the way of Gigot. The following recipe from Stéphane Reynaud’s “Ripaille” would be a very good introduction to those who have not eaten Gigot as it should be…the beans are a magical combination. I often use haricots cooked in goose fat which work quite as well.
Today I have been eating leftover cold lamb on warm chunks of baguette which is another thing altogether and which I should blog about on another occasion.
Recently I’ve been consuming an inordinate amount of sugar. On the plus side, this surfeit of sweetness, for the most part, is virtual. Well written cookery books, and I purposely make this distinction, should display a health warning. A clear definition of what is well written as a cookery book must be purely subjective so I won’t bother with it any further; suffice it to say that on this disappointingly chilly spring morning I was to be found warming myself before a roaring fire and reading one such book. When engrossed in good food writing I become miraculously aware of each and every ingredient in our store cupboards and their exact geographical location within those confines. However, was I to be actively engaged in cooking in that same kitchen, this clairvoyance ceases to operate. Critical ingredients hide themselves in the shadowy recesses at the back of shelves and packets that I remembered as full are empty or were never bought in the first place. So, when I encountered what was a tooth achingly sexy recipe and could clearly see in my mind’s eye all of the ingredients taking a curtain call in my cerebral proscenium arch, it was but a moments work to root out their physical counterparts from their resting places and get on with making what Nigel Slater calls a “heavenly parfait of orange and lemon”……by the way, the book was “Kitchen Diaries II” by him. The hook, together with line and sinker, for which I fell was the suggestion of crumbling homemade meringues into thick cream and adding dollops of lemon curd together with orange zest.
As you can clearly see, virtual sugar has been left a long way behind. We have entered into a world which, according to the multitude of health gurus, is several steps past heroin fuelled, drunken prostitution…..so, a pretty exciting spot which has the added advantage of there being no health gurus in the hood. The hidden beauty of this recipe is the ease with which it is made, should you happen to have about your person a box of unwanted home made meringues and some very tart Creme de Citron ( a rather sexy French version of lemon curd)…but the success of this parfait relies on a light touch. You need to retain chunky pieces of meringue together with thick streaks of lemon curd. The prepared mix is spooned into a lined container and covered with cling film. Freeze the parfait for around 4 hours….the parfait will happily remain frozen for several days, but take it out of the freezer about 30 minutes before serving.
Parfait of Orange and Lemon …a recipe by Nigel Slater
500ml whipping or double cream
300gms lemon curd
grated zest of an orange.
Line a cake tin or plastic freezer box with cling film or waxed paper.
Pour the cream into a chilled mixing bowl and whisk until soft and thick. Crumble the meringues into the cream making sure to keep intact some larger pieces of the soft fudgey centre of the meringues.Add the lemon curd and orange zest. Stir gently to incorporate the ingredients …without overmixing!
Tip the mixture into the lined container and cover with a piece of cling film. Freezing will take about 4hours.
Serves 6 – 8
“You can take a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think”. The lusciously sticky prunes of Agen have only to touch your lips to end any token resistance to their sluttishness. It’s not difficult to detect whorish behaviour in a prune and it’s clear that thinking is not their strong suite; but they can certainly drink and they can certainly give pleasure. Armagnac is very much their tipple, although I don’t think that they would be averse to any good eau de vie and once they have drunk their fill, les pruneaux d’Agen will reveal their soft seductive sweetness as readily as any of les grandes horizontales.
I can’t understand why I’ve never made a dessert with pruneaux d’Agen before. It may be that I have indeed planned to do so but have ended up by eating them all while scanning the pages of cookery books, waiting for a recipe to catch my eye. It may equally be because I very rarely have Armagnac, or indeed any eaux de vie, in the house for the very good reason that if I did have them in the house they would only be there for a very short time. There is a strange anomaly in France in that Cognac and Armagnac are in short supply in the drinks department of supermarkets the shelves of which, rather surprisingly, are liberally stocked with whiskies and rums rather than their own world renowned product. But this is the Vendée and I’m sure that the scene is more favourable to these alcoholic prunes down in their home in the South West. One has the option of buying bags of pruneaux d’Agen either with or without their stones. I chose to buy the ones with the stones still in which, I felt, gave them a better chance of surviving the journey home, uneaten. The recipe I chose is a classic bistro recipe which is eminently easy to make but it it does need a ceramic quiche dish or a truly leak proof tin. There is also the fact that if the pruneaux are left to drink the Armagnac over a couple of days whilst they talk amongst themselves, it and they will be all the better for it.
The quality of leeks may not be strained but the quantity of them in my kitchen most certainly is. Such a surfeit of leeks would suggest that I am in the throes of creating a celebratory dish for the imminent release of Julian Assange. But the prosaic truth is that I have been overwhelmed by a glut of neighbourly generosity rather than pricked by political conscience. Is it unreasonable, the leek being part of the onion family, for me to be surprised by its onioniness? But surprised I am and have been: far too often. My expectation of this handsome, even pretty, vegetable is a melting, buttery softness made savoury by judicious seasoning. My benchmark for a well behaved leek would be its performance in a carefully balanced leek and potato soup which, at its best, should have the the character of a creamy potato soup with gentle overtones of leek. Pommes boulangère, a supper dish that I often make, has leeks as well as onion in the recipe and I have found that I am happier, when making my version of this dish, that the leeks should remain solely as words in the recipe, shall we say a politely ignored suggestion, One’s hopes may well be similarly dashed by the over bearing onion tones of the first tempting mouthful of a beautiful pale green leak tart which had seemed to promise so much more. Had I been hungering for such a flavour I would have made a pungent onion and anchovy pissaladière . However, rail as I may, I have never lost faith in the leek and, aside from cooking them in olive oil and red wine, have found that they react spectacularly well to the slowest of cooking in much more butter than one could ever deem to be wise; this to be done in a good thick pan, with a layer of grease proof paper over the leeks and with the lid on top. A little seasoning of pepper and sea salt and then just wait until they’re right for you. I put a layer of the butter soft leeks into a small eared dish and covered them with some left over mashed potato, over which I grated some Parmesan ( little lumps of Comté or Cheddar would be very good). All this then needs is to be put in the oven until the potato is nicely golden brown with crisp points. This little gem was found nestling unobtrusively at the end of a chapter in my new cookery book “The Kitchen Diaries II” by Nigel Slater.
I have a habit of forgetting a particular word. I can’t tell you what that particular word is as I’ve forgotten it but it serves to define the emotions we feel when fondly remembering earlier moments in our lives…I haven’t really nailed that down, so I’m hoping that I’ll remember the word sooner than later. What I was remembering, fondly, was the era of Duck à l’Orange; an era when Duck in Orange Sauce would not have communicated the intended sophistication of the dish to a public who were newly accustomed to going “abroad” for their hols whilst still being firmly entrenched in a previous mindset when Canard à l’Orange might be that bit too foreign and best avoided…if only they had duck on the menu.
( I still can’t remember the fucking word, and I’ve been to the doctor’s since I started writing this which means that I’ve had plenty of time in the waiting room to reflect and it’s still a blank).
I have a very good book, by Simon Hopkinson, which covers the recipes of this era and is aptly called “The Prawn Cocktail Years” but it was not from that treasure trove that I uncovered this uncomplicated little jewel. On second thoughts, I never uncovered it at all; it was uncovered for me, from under the upholstered cover of a well thumbed copy of Stephane Reynaud’s “Ripailles”, by the good friends with whom we had lunch last Sunday. Got it…nostalgia….I was quite close at the doctor’s surgery when I saw a notice about neuralgia and on second thoughts nostalgia does not have to include fondness or thanks for the memory. Now I can clearly state that I never get nostalgic about Duck à l’Orange as all my memories of it, prior to the discovery of the recipe that I have just touched on, are of a repellent, sticky dish of marmalade and poultry.
In time to come I may well feel nostalgic for the moment that I happened upon this short, simple and successful recipe. Before you launch into this recipe I should mention that I made a couple of changes that worked …for me. I only used two duck breasts ( which, as you can see, were a good size and which fed 4 people) and two large oranges: the zest from one and the juice from one and a half. The remaining half was to be used for segments but I ate it so omitted the segments. You’ll see that M. Reynaud stipulates 200ml of soy which amount I more than halved (50ml). I whisked a great deal more butter into the sauce…quite a lot more. The result was very good. On reflection, mine’s a completely different recipe…..:)
The duck was accompanied by peas and potatoes roasted in duck fat.
Cookery writers busy themselves creating and revising the culinary zeitgeist at a faster rate than I can digest. My years of going through the annual charade of nodding in agreement, whilst trying not to nod off, as one was briefed on photography for the Christmas edition with those ominous words that ” This year we’re going to do Christmas with a twist”, is happily in the past. Magazine food editors and cookery book publishers have applied more twists to the groaning festive board than those applied, as chinese burns, to the wrists of a groaning Tom Brown by a bored Flashman (it’s worth mentioning that the ever creative Flashman added an extra twist by having a go at cooking Tom’s arse on an open fire, which could also be read as a cri de coeur against 19th century school food, invariably served without a twist (pace Oliver), at Rugby School ). The fact of the matter is that there is but a limited number of foodstuffs that are readily available, and palatable, to those of us who cook, as part of living a life, as opposed to those who have chosen to forage for rarities in the wild or to travel in search of wind dried entrails in the souks of Samarkand. No twist will replace the quality of well cooked, well chosen, ingredients. The corollary of this premise is that a mouth watering twist which has been crafted from exotic words and beautiful pictures, rather than good cooking and good ingredients, will most certainly involve eating a pretty, but unpalatable, silk purse rather than a mundane, but very good, crisp sow’s ear. True to the tradition of “Carry On Cooking” I must admit that it was my nuts that set me to writing this piece. The simple walnut tart that featured in my previous post came about through my noticing and buying a big bag of very good walnuts from Grenoble, for very little money, from a nearby supermarket. There is a real pleasure in cracking open a pile of walnuts and finding that, instead of the contents resembling a dark and desiccated brain from a shrunken head, each and every one reveals and releases an unblemished golden kernel. I get the same buzz on opening a fat bulb of butter yellow garlic with the heel of my hand or on lifting the saucepan lid to see, through the curtain of rising steam,the orange slivers of fat juicy mussel flesh revealed by the gaping black glossy shells. Nothing replaces good, fresh ingredients…nothing.
As a final caveat, I advise you all to steer clear of adventurous cooks. Ask yourself if you would be happy with an adventurous pilot, an adventurous taxi driver or an adventurous dentist…..Captain Cook was adventurous and that didn’t end well.
This morning, during the daily meeting with myself in the shaving mirror, it occurred to me that I have many more failings than I have hairs on my head. With age comes an acceptance of failings and I take full advantage of this licence. W.C.Fields’ expressed sentiment of liking children but not being able to eat a whole one resonates with me and I make this failing quite evident. By dint of this transparency I get to cook for myself on those nights when Jenny is absent, fulfilling her role as a good grandmother. I quite like to cook for myself as it leaves one free to make random choices and to make mistakes without disappointing others. Last night was one such night and, in the cold light of this morning, I’m still of the opinion that I may have eaten my ideal dinner. The arrival of the cat Molly in our lives has brought out the caring side in me that should in truth have already been there for our grand children…but every child needs at least one grumpy grandparent and I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Back to Molly who, as we know, is a he. All advice on feeding Molly centred around dry biscuits and it didn’t take long for me to realise that this cat was a cat who would never be happy with such dull fare. For the good of Molly I decided to roast a small chicken each week that would supplement his diet and provide me, on occasion, with some healthy protein. The success in the roasting of this chicken increases each week. It gets simpler and better. Half an onion and a bunch of fresh sage goes into the cavity and the bird is then sprinkled liberally with olive oil and coarse sea salt together with a turn or two of black pepper. The prepared chicken is then placed on a small rack in a roasting tray, into which I have poured a glass of water, and cooked in a hot oven for an hour, with occasional basting.
Last night, the aroma of chicken roasting had filled the house and I was ready to eat but, nobly resisting the urge to tuck in, I let the chicken settle for half an hour and then served myself some slices of warm, freshly roasted meat together with a handful of mixed green leaves over which, as a dressing, I spooned some of the hot juices from the roasting pan.That’s it. Unbelievably good…so good that it would have been wonderful to have had Jenny there to share the goodness except that she doesn’t eat meat which takes me back to the pleasure of occasionally eating alone. But that which she would have undoubtedly enjoyed was the breath taking walnut tart, from Caroline Conran’s marvelous book “Under the Sun”, that I made for dessert. I had often thought to make this and only the lack of walnuts in my larder had prevented me from doing so. Yesterday, there were walnuts in the larder and by the end of play the walnuts were in the tart and the tart was in me.
Effortfully is a word that I have only recently encountered and I can’t think why that should be. On reading it, in a novel, the word surprised and charmed me and I thought that it might be the invention of the author. A moment’s research denied him this acclaim whilst confirming my own lack of vocabulary. The word attracted me because its antonym is so often used to describe things that, in truth, require a great deal of effort. To be effortlessly falling through the air is not surprising but the suggestion that someone looks effortlessly beautiful would be to discard the effortful work of hairdressers, personal trainers and the legion of professional beautifiers that bring this effortless state into being. On the other hand, these leeks managed it by having their outer leaves removed and lying in a pan of oil and wine. Very like Cleopatra in a bath of asses’ milk but without the bobbed hair.
It is said that a bad workman will blame his tools for bad workmanship. Not being a workman in any sense of the word, yet today finding myself at hard labour, I was more catholic in my apportioning of blame and included the weather, the day of the week, the place of work and the person or reason that had caused me to be working in the first place. Today I have been lifting, digging and pushing a wheelbarrow full of the heavy things that I had previously lifted and dug whilst the love of my life reminded me of the catalogue of torment to come. Each time that I have engaged in manual labour I have contemplated the adage concerning the satisfaction to be derived from hard work yet my experience of such satisfaction remains unrequited. I warm to Thomas Edison’s observation that opportunity is missed by most people as it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work and few people, outside of our celebrated English sporting heroes, have missed as many golden opportunities as I. The one positive that I have taken from manual labour is that, unlike writing or image making, I can foresee its end. Today the end duly arrived, earlier than was foreseen by my forewoman, but she succumbed to the old Navajo trick of my kneeling, begging and pleading ( pace Woody Allen). Once out of the orbit of self induced misery I was able to activate the basal ganglia circuit, firing up the pleasure neurons which quickly had me making some lunch. I would love to know the recipe for basal ganglia but it must be American as they can’t pronounce basil. Any way, it needed to be quicker than ganglia, so I opted for cheese on toast. Having recently been in receipt of an electricity bill I noticed that we were being charged money for using the electrical appliances in the house so toasting or grilling would not be part of this dish. A pan with some olive oil and enough heat beneath it makes a very good sandwich of melting Cantal cheese which has been piled between two pieces of pain au levain. Nearly worth going to work for…..now for a close up: