Beautiful tomato, heavy, plump and red, soft to the touch, slightly blemished due to a spate of rainy days. The season so far has been sparse, despite the borrowed bees in their Hilton-like structure in the garden. From this large healthy plant, we'll probably only get five tomatoes. Whatever, sliced, a touch of salt, covered in olive oil and ripped basil, this tomato makes a delicate entrée for two.
Would we be prepared to pay for good tomatoes, soft-skinned, picked from the vine only when ripe?
It's become a cliché to complain about the modern tomato. Is it our fault?
I've looked into this. Vine-ripened tomatoes are NOT ripened on the vine. Sorry to crush your delusions. They should more rightly be called "cluster tomatoes" because they are a variety that grows that way. And don't they look lovely in the greengrocer's with their little green stems? You pay more, harvesting is trickier but there is no improvement in flavour. Furthermore, all bought tomatoes are bred for tough skins , which makes them easier to transport. (See doctoring tomatoes in post 28/12/2017.)
How much more would we be prepared to pay?
I have been playing with eggplant (aubergines), a vegetable with which I have a strained relationship. I love every dish I'm offered but rarely cook it myself, so here goes.
I’ve now done a Japanese-style eggplant in miso, a Madhur Jaffrey recipe with eggplant, apple and chilli, the Turkish eggplant dish that made the Imam faint it was so delicious, melanzane parmigiana and this good-looking moussaka.
The moussaka needed the minced lamb to be cooked with tomato, onion and cinnamon, the eggplant to be salted, drained and fried in olive oil, the béchamel to be prepared with milk and eggs, the cheese to be grated – all simple enough steps. Nonetheless I found I needed to spread the preparation of all the “bits” over a couple of days. The outcome was worth it but I was reminded of an observation made by friend, fellow chef and observer of gastronomy.
“Traditional cooking assumes there is someone who will spend all day making something. This is not as dire as it sounds because the ‘men folk’ know that it takes all day, they taste the nutmeg, they know they can only have zucchini flowers in certain seasons and they know that maybe that day the sheets have not been taken to the river to be washed. Only if you have an appreciative audience will traditional cooking survive." Rosa Matto
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We receive an invitation to morning tea in the new year, ostensibly to help clear some left-overs, in particular the Christmas cake. Seven of us sit around a table set with Shelley teacups, plates and a glass of domestic bubbles. Bliss.
Laura has been making this recipe for years. It was possibly the best I’ve ever had – texture, colour, flavour. Following modern trends, it was not covered in marzipan or snow-like icing, which I miss.
I have a special bond with celebratory fruit cakes. On coming to England to marry my father, Maman took herself off to cookery classes. She was a top cook, from a family of good cooks, but she felt her repertoire lacked three dishes – Yorkshire pudding, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. (I think there were some soused herrings in there somewhere, too.)
She rightly thought the French Bûche de Noël lacked gravitas and substance. She was so right.
How can anyone not like Christmas cake? (I mean of course a well-made one, not pale and doughy.) It has tradition, staying power, colour and wholesome dried fruit. And I’ll say it, anyone who does not like marzipan loses my respect.
When doing weddings at the restaurant I couldn’t understand why the fruitcake was passed over for the dreaded chocolate mud cake. (Urrrgh!)
As Pauline Hansen would say, “Please explain”. Please tell me why the fruit cake has lost favour.
Rescue the fruit cake? Comment below.
As Rick Stein helps a Sicilian nonna to “peel” artichokes (Mediterranean Adventures) he alerts us to a passage from Kingsley Amis’ 1969 novel The Green Man (a sardonic and witty writer with a nasty streak, writing about a rather nasty man running a small hotel). One critic called it “Fawlty Towers with sex and ghosts". Here, landlord Maurice sits down to lunch with his wife Joyce and friends.
“Joyce had put up a cold collation: artichoke with a vinaigrette, a ham, a tongue the chef had pressed himself, a game pie from the same hand, salads and a cheese board with radishes and spring onions. I missed out the artichoke, a dish I have always tended to despise on biological grounds. I used to say that a man with a weight problem should eat nothing else, since after each meal he would be left with fewer calories in him than he had burnt up in the toil of disentangling from the bloody things what shreds of nourishment they contained. I would speculate that a really small man, one compelled by his size to eat with a frequency distantly comparable to that of the shrew or the mole, would soon die of starvation and/ or exhaustion if locked up in a warehouse full of artichokes, and sooner still if compelled besides to go through the rigmarole of dunking each leaf in vinaigrette. But I did not go into any of this now, partly because Joyce, who liked every edible thing and artichokes particularly, always came back with the accusation that I hated food.”
(Incidentally he does hate food as he hates life, everything and everyone he comes across. Joyce, his wife gets her own back, leaves him and runs off with his mistress.)
How are you going with your artichokes? Comment below.
I celebrate the 25 December as the beginning of the final days of the year - something I'm quite sentimental about. I don't mock the idea of New Year's resolutions. It's a time to give it a go, to be warm with each other, to forgive one's foolishness, to plan and to make an effort. For the first time ever, we celebrated à deux. Modern life sends friends and relatives both across the globe and across the continent. We must accept it. And it was very, very simple, special and quite lovely.
We set the table for two with a tablecloth embroidered by my mother. It's what French girls did in Algeria waiting for fiancés to claim them after the war.
We had a modest petit-bourgeois sauternes, in possibly the world's most beautiful glass. (Joseph Hoffman, late 19th C., still available at Lobmeyr in Vienna.)
Adam Wynn, retired winemaker and Honorary Japanese Consul relates that Philippe de Rothschild liked his sauternes so chilled that splinters of ice would tinkle against the glass. I've stuck to this although I think Phillipe might have drunk Chateau d'Yquem.
This accompanied our mousseline de canard with sour-dough toast and pickled cherries ( from January this year).
We moved to Champagne, Pol Roger 2008, a birthday present from October this year to RTV from his friend and "medical adviser" Dick W. Bliss to allow oneself to drink Champagne with a meal, not just before. Note to self - do this more often. (And drink less but better.) I love drinking in these possibly "incorrect" glasses, (bought in Hobart). It's festive to have the bubbles tickle your face. In keeping with the simplicity theme, we had garlic prawns (very 1970s but quick to prepare) with a little basmati and a tiny salad of our baby cos.
To finish, a classic plum pudding, hot, with chilled custard. I'm not ashamed to say this was a pudding from Aldi and you couldn't have wished for better. I flamed it with over-proof dark rum. As you can see, I pour the custard around but RTV, the rugged individualist, pours his over, obliterating the pudding. He knows I dislike this but it's "party time" and to mimic Alan Bennett, "I didn't say anything".
But at this stage of the evening, things deteriorate a little and the laptop appears on the table. We reminisce, we draw out old dance numbers on Youtube, we rewatch some favourite comedy stand-ups. We drink water. Ah, well...
(Cutlery - Portugal - Cutipol-Goa - approx. 2008)
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New home page to start off the new year of 2019. Wishing you sincerely a good try at contentment and fulfilment, some gatherings of friends away from phones and laptops and time to play with some of the great dishes and food combinations you've dreamed of.
This is a table set at home for a breakfast of friends. (We usually gather at different spots around town.) The simplest thing was to do the full English, accompanied by a glass of bubbles. This Wedgwood service (1910) offers me breakfast cups, teacups and coffee cups. So sensible.
More of the breakfast later.
There has been some serious fallout from my Panettone disaster. Reactions have been swift and direct. Misunderstanding could be blamed on my poor writing and communication skills. I'll be more clear.
I love Panettone but as with tins of "British" curry powder, jars of sweet soy-based mayonnaise, bottles of "lite" vinigerette (sic), tinned carrots, Kraft cheddar cheese slices, easy-squeeze plastic lemons of juice and bright green cocktail onions, I prefer the real thing.
Silly me, I thought I'd make one. When I said this was the worst thing I'd ever made, a friend suggested it was simply that I didn't like panettone, that I had misunderstood that it was a type of a bread. No. I had tried and failed. This was awful because it was NOT a Panettone.
This December I counted a minimum of 500 boxes of Panettone, displayed in pyramids, at any one time at my local supermarket. Every day the stacks were replenished. Imagine the number throughout this small city, in every supermarket, gourmet shop, Italian greengrocer, imagine the number in each city of the world. It's a bit like the diaspora of Persian Rug Closing Down Sales.
I copied their ingredients. On average they were made of...
Wheat flour, sugar, vegetable fats (palm oil) sultanas, eggs, natural yeast, candied orange peel, wheat glucose-fructose syrup, citric acid, sulphur di-oxide, emulsifying agents: mono & diglycerides of edible fatty acids, salt, skimmed milk powder, flavours (unspecified). They ranged in price, the lowest for a 900gram loaf was $6.49.
Yes, there are good quality ones. The priciest was $47.00 and why shouldn't they charge that for something that has been made with care and good ingredients? Interestingly, these were not as tall (less pumped up) and with ingredients we could recognise.
Yes I decided to make one and learnt it was harder than I imagined - a great lesson in humility.
Another friend said it must have been OK because she knew I couldn't make anything bad. A darling and sweet thing to say, thank you, but I assure you, even I make (and have made) mistakes.
Another friend said it looked yummy, Fool, you have many disappointments to look forward to.
Still another found the worst thing was the garnish of holly. And here I was thinking I was being sarcastically funny decorating it with black leaves - a doomed loaf.
But solid information came from Frank. A master baker, Frank is the man. I re-post his notes which will open up some of the hidden traps of working with flour and yeast. (And I turned the loaf into a re-constructed Tiramisu, with the addition of coffee, over-proof dark rum and mascarpone cream.
Frank writes, "Any yeast dough that has a high fat content and high sugar content needs to have a pre-batter stage. In a mixer, have some of the flour and a pinch of the sugar with all of the yeast and all of the liquid at blood temperature. Make this like a loose pancake batter and then cover with the rest of the flour, sugar, butter, salt and flavourings. When the batter rises up and causes the flour to crack open you know it’s ok to start mixing. Fruit goes in last after the dough is well developed. Don’t over-do the amount of alcohol you might be tempted to douse the fruit in either. High alcohol content can hinder the yeasts performance too. As for salt, it plays a very important part in any yeast product, in flavour and yeast management (stops the yeast from behaving like a teenage boy in love making). It also helps crust colour. I hope this helps Cath. Good on you for giving it a go though. Hope you try again with better results."
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You know you want to.
Black Holly Leaves of Doom
This is definitely the worst thing I've ever produced, the worst thing I've ever pulled from an oven, the worst miscalculation of any recipe I've ever tried.
I'm not wild about a commercial panettone. They are too airy and often with too much undefinable (i.e artificial) flavouring. So I did a lot of talking around and reading about its culture, history and preparation. I went from Paul Hollywood (British Scouser from The Great British Bake-Off) to Carol Field, Marcella Hazan and Pellegrino Artusi et al.
It all seemed like a wank, a procedure aimed at making the cook feel important, admired and loved. Days of angst with three different fermentations and proofing! Rubbish! None of that. I understand pastry, I make brioche with my eyes shut, for me puff pastry replaces yoga.
Instead of making panettone, I decided to make a festive, culturally sensitive, fruit-studded brioche. Culturally sensitive in that I wanted to stay away from any rebukes from my Italophile friends. You know how it goes, add one more mint leaf to a traditional risotto recipe and you'll be banned from the aperitivo for life.
So instead, I ended up with this. What went wrong? It is literally inedible and I use the word correctly. It's as dry as if it had been made a week ago and left un-covered on the bench. Toasted this morning and buttered, it didn't improve and there's not much that can't be fixed with a good buttering.
What do I learn?
What to do with this? Perhaps I'll make Tiramisu but is this allowed with messed-up brioche? I could make a trifle and be careful not to call it Zuppa Inglese. I'll also go buy a panettone.
Apart from pride and ignorance, where did I go wrong?
I’m lucky to have a greengrocer who dares to stock artichokes. Some growers keep a small crop on the side, it seems, and some plants come from local back yards. To most people the fresh variety remains a mystery. I’ve been asked what they are and what you do with them.
There’s a lot of fancy stuff on the grocers’ shelves that has little going for it, IMO. Dragon fruit? Gorgeous to look at but tasteless. Chokos? OK, plentiful on someone’s back fence but flavour ditto.
I love artichokes. I love them for sensible reasons. I love them for shallow reasons.
They are fun. They taste good. They’re easy to prepare for a spectacular outcome. They are strange, esoteric, arcane (great word). They are a great vehicle for sauces such as hollandaise, mayonnaise, vinaigrette. They are an excuse for an artichoke plate! They are healthy. (Gosh! Never thought I’d stoop so low. More later.)
But most of all, I like them because they are slow to eat. They take time (like eating crabs), time to chat and lick your fingers.
To prepare them, pull off perhaps the two bottom rows of very small petals, cut off the stem, discard. Cut off the top 3-4 cm and trim the rest of the leaves with scissors, just to neaten the globe.
Have some water simmering with a cut lemon in it to help keep the artichoke's colour. Be warned. With all the trimming, there will be debris! Simmer in gently rolling water for at least 15 minutes. This is not the time for "modern" crunchy vegetables. Check they are very tender by piercing the bottom with a knife tip.
Drain the artichokes up-side-down. Serve at room temperature, on a plate with a dipping bowl of sauce per person. (An artichoke plate, of course, is designed to hold the bulb, hold the sauce and also hold the discarded leaves in an orderly fashion.)
How do you eat them? Now you've done the work, how do you get the reward?
Start at the bottom. Pull off a petal. You will eat only the soft base (the rest is inedible). Dip the end into your sauce. Now for the tricky part. Turn it over, concave down, and pull/scrape away the flesh with your lower teeth. (See my teethmarks, above.)
Keep going round and around until you get to the hairy choke. (This is the part that becomes the flower.) With a small sharp knife, trim this away. (Often it will pull away easily.) You have now reached the prize - the artichoke heart. Voilà.
OK, you're not going to be gorging yourself with this but the pleasure is not only the flavour but the slowness. (All this for just the tip, you ask. Surely saner and more ethical than hummingbirds' tongues.)
Tick if this helps. Tell me how you go. Comment or add to the conversation, below.
Left: Artichoke bush in the garden.
Right: Atichoke, grown huge and spiky, just ready to bloom.
Artichokes are thistles and left on their bush long enough, the buds become huge, tough and spiky, developing the purple flower we associate with Scottish kilts, Laphroaig and Sean Connery. We buy the young, underdeveloped buds. They can be green, purple, round or pointed.
When we first arrived in Australia (Ten Pound Poms, French mother) my mother took us out to pick tiny wild artichokes. Well of course, they were thistles - and delicious they were, too.
Jerusalem Artichokes are a lovely tuber dug from the roots of a type of sunflower. They bear no relation to the artichoke. The English names are very confusing. In French, there are artichauts and topinambours, respectively. In Italian there are carciofi and topinambur.
Hoping one day someone will make me artichaut à la juive or carciofi alla giudia, an old Jewish recipe from Rome. Whole artichokes are deep-fried in olive oil (imagine the quantity of oil) so that they open like roses and can be eaten like potato crisps.
Avoid bringing the leaves anywhere near food. They are extremely bitter. An unfortunate friend once got creative and added the leaves to a dish of chicken and artichokes - for decoration. Disaster. The leaves can be rubbed on your fingers if you're still fighting the urge to bite your nails.
Don't attempt to eat the fibrous petals. They get more tender towards the centre. I've seen people make valiant attempts to eat the lotus leaf or banana leaf wrapping around Chinese sticky rice and the sugar cane of Vietnamese sugarcane prawns. Artichoke petals should also be left alone. You can't have it all.
A strange sweetness can invade your mouth when you drink red wine with artichokes. This happens only to some people. Any ideas, anyone?
Artichokes not only contain every nutritional device, meme and trope imaginable, every vitamin, folate, fibre, antioxidant (highest level of any vegetable), known for thousands of years. You know the story. But it is particularly useful it seems, for the digestive system and can be delivered to you through a glass of Cynar, a digestive so bitter, it's impossible to imagine it doing you anything but good. It could remove original sin, given a chance along with plague, locusts, boils and pestilence.
The plates - any large plate will do, large enough to hold the discarded petals as you eat but...
Majolica artichoke plates have been made by the French company Gien since the late 19th C. Mine were collected bit by bit on eBay but date no later than the 1970s.