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egg and spinach cocottes

1 Apr

egg and spinach cocottes

My mother got cross when I admitted to using frozen spinach. (But she is a purist that thinks nothing of growing her own vegetables and herbs.) What can I say? I know the fresh stuff is delicious and cheap and in season. I just always feel cheated, bringing home an enormous bag from the market, washing it, sauteing it only to find a miserly heap of green, a tenth of the original volume. My expectations are lower for the frozen stuff.

And sometimes you are standing in line at the Paris Store, the Chinese supermarket, at the end of a long day at work and you decide you need a first course because the chicken legs look too skinny. And you aren’t queuing up again, or buying anything else, because the plastic bags are carving grooves into your fingers. But you do want to impress your guests. And you did buy 30 eggs for baking. And there is spinach in the freezer.

These cocottes – or oeufs en cocotte - to give them their proper French name only take a few minutes to make but in their individual dishes they look fancy and taste better. The sesame oil and miso paste add an extra kick without overpowering the spinach. It tastes more complex than it is, with all the umami of salmon. The egg yolk should be runny for dipping your bread, the spinach neatly coated in cream, tangy and salty. It somehow surpasses the sum of its parts. Works equally as a starter for a dinner party or jealously guarded for a solo dinner (I can eat at least two).

~~~

Egg and Spinach Cocottes

serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a light supper

4 eggs

300g frozen spinach (preferably leaves, no finely chopped)

1 tsp sesame oil

2 small shallots, or 2 spring onions

1 tsp miso paste

50g creme fraiche (or 50g cream + squeeze of lemon)

salt and pepper

For individual portions, you will need 4 small ramekins (8-10cm wide). Or else one oven-proof baking dish (approx 16cm) to bake them all at once.

Heat oven to 180C. Gently heat frozen spinach in a saucepan until it defrosts. Add the sesame oil. Chop the shallots/spring onions finely and add to the pan, saute until soft. Then stir in the miso and cream and cook for a minute, just to heat through.

Divide the spinach between the four dishes and hollow out a hole in the mixture. Crack an egg into the hole. Sprinkle over some salt and pepper. Bake for 15-18 minutes until the white is no longer translucent but the yolk is still runny.

Serve immediately with a baguette tradition or thin slices of toasted sourdough.

 

apple and cheese soufflés, and cheat’s ratatouille

10 Mar

apple cheese souffles 1

There is a magnificent sunset outside, swathes of pink on a clear, blue sky. From the bridge at the end of my road, it is criss-crossed with black wires hung over the train lines. I like the contrast. Walking back home, along a route I never take, I look up and see a classic silhouette behind a skyscraper, the dome and tower of the Sacré-Coeur. Normally I never go that way, normally I go inwards to the centre of Paris’ clock-face. But Paris extra-muros is being steadily smartened and I had been to visit the new Ciné-Cité on the outskirts, pristine and echoing still. I shouldn’t be surprised that there is more to discover, that a different road will yield such different results. The day before a long run took me past a British telephone box stranded in the Paris suburbs, fully functional with a dial tone and everything. It is a tiny city sometimes, and sometimes even after three and a half years I don’t know it at all.

Talk about leaving my comfort zone in increments. I curl up on the sofa with a pile of cookbooks the afternoon of the dinner party with the will to make something new… And what really leaps out out at me are the soufflés. The way I open a menu and instantly know I must have that  or I will be disappointed. But I already wrote about soufflés three posts ago. And I will make them with goat’s cheese, which has been so over-done the Guardian has been panicking about a desperate shortage of the stuff. What’s more, the recipe comes from my mother’s cookbook.

apple cheese souffles 3

What can I say? Everyone has food phases, cravings, repetitive habits – see also, the Croutons for Breakfast period circa 1998 – and though they may be a la mode, I can’t resist making more soufflés. Their craggy puff, their splendour as they arrive at the table – and above all, their relative ease. Granted, I can only make four at a time because of my little oven, but I only need ingredients lying around the kitchen – cheese, milk, butter, eggs and in this case, an apple – and a good whisk. As simple as an omelette, but more spectacular.

A couple of hours before dinner, I fried an apple in butter, then made a simple béchamel sauce. When it was thick and creamy, I added egg yolks, goat’s cheese and apple. That was it. The egg whites waited on one side for the last minute.

cheat's ratatouille 2

Meanwhile, the oven did all the work for the laziest (best) ratatouille I have ever tried. One large aubergine, one courgette and one red pepper were roasted whole until blackened and collapsing in on themselves. (The aubergine gave up the ghost first, the courgette was made of tougher stuff.) Once baked soft, they need all of ten seconds to chop roughly – can be done with kitchen scissors, even. All I had to do was gently saute a clove or two of garlic in some olive oil, add a tomato and done. Stir them all together, season. Best of all, no squeaky aubergine: too often ratatouille has cubes of polystyrene eggplant swimming in watery sauce because it takes so long to cook each vegetable to the proper consistency. This oven-roasted version was silky, meltingly tender and took less effort than reading this paragraph.

So after half an hour’s actual work, I was done. Wash up, go back to the sofa for more tea. Pretend to be the consummate hostess when my guests arrive. When they do, when they begin to look hungry despite the crisps and crackers, all that needs doing is preheating the oven, whisking the egg whites and gently folding in the rich béchamel. The soufflés were over enthusiastic, bursting from their dishes. Even better. Brown around the edges, fluffy in the middle, with the subtle tang of apple balancing the goat’s cheese: they were comforting and ever-so-slightly out of the ordinary. Just right for a Wednesday.

cheat's ratatouille 1

Apple and cheese soufflés

from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets –  she suggests using blue cheese (in which case omit the salt). Her version is also twice baked, which means you bake them, let them cool for 20 minutes then turn them out of the ramekins onto a baking tray and reheat for 10 minutes when needed. This reduces last minute preparation, and leads to a slightly more crisp texture – but I like the pomp of a freshly baked soufflé. Serve with salad and toasted walnuts for a starter, or with ratatouille, some steamed potatoes and bread for a filling main course.

makes 8 starter size or 4 main course size

100g butter, divided into 30/70g

1 large apple (160g)

50g plain flour

300ml milk

100g cheese – mild goat’s cheese or strong blue, according to taste

(3/4 tsp salt – omit if using blue cheese!)

pepper

4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites

You will need some ramekins or little straight-sided dishes so that the soufflés rise properly. For the small, starter size they should be about 8cm across, for the larger 11-12cm.

Melt 30g butter in a small saucepan; peel and finely chop the apple. Cook the apple in butter, covered, for 5 minutes or until soft and golden. Tip into a bowl. In the same saucepan, melt the rest of the butter. Using a pastry brush, thoroughly coat the inside of your ramekins with butter. Dust them with a little flour, rolling them around so the flour covers the sides and bottom. Set aside.

Add the flour to the melted butter and stir well to make a roux. Let it cook for a minute or two until it smells slightly nutty, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Off the heat, add the milk a little at a time, whisking in between to remove lumps. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy and just starts to bubble. Decant into the bowl with the apples. Crumble in the cheese, add salt (if using) and pepper and finally the egg yolks. Stir. Clingfilm the surface so it doesn’t form a skin. Have the egg whites in a separate, large, clean bowl – also with clingfilm over it to stop any contamination. Whites whisk best at room temperature.

(All of the above can be prepared in advance. If it is more than a couple of hours beforehand, refrigerate the béchamel and whites and bring to room temperature before using. Alternatively, bake the soufflés straightaway as below. Then when they have cooled – 20 minutes or so – ease them out of their ramekins with a palette knife and turn onto a baking tray. Reheat when needed.)

Preheat the oven to 200C and whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Stir a quarter into the béchamel sauce to lighten it, then tip it all into the whites and fold together, careful not to lose the air. Fill ramekins to the brim, smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help them rise up evenly. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until they have puffed up, turned golden-brown and feel reasonably firm to the touch.

Serve immediately.

apple cheese souffles 2

Cheat’s Ratatouille

serves 4 as a side dish

1 large aubergine

1 large red pepper

1 large or 2 small courgettes

1 large or 2 small tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

2 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

Heat oven to 250C. Line a baking tray with foil. Stab the aubergine and pepper several times with a fork. If using a large courgette, slice in half, otherwise leave everything whole. Bake for 20 minutes or so until the vegetables have collapsed and, for the pepper, blackened around the edges. Remove any vegetables that cook quicker – my courgette needed an extra ten minutes to really soften. Meanwhile, peel and smash the garlic cloves with the back of a knife; cook in the olive oil until soft but not brown. Roughly chop the tomato and sauté for a couple of minutes until it breaks down. Chop the roasted vegetables with knife or kitchen scissors (remove stalk and seeds from pepper) and pour away any liquid that seeps out. Add to tomato, garlic, and heat through. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Serve.

spring supper

2 Mar

spring, cherry blossoms

Two days in bed with a bad cold and my brain went to mush. The extremely nice flatmate brought me tisanes and yoghurt and pretended to understand my French. (“No, he wasn’t telling the truth, he was telling candles. Wait, what?”) Eventually she judged me well enough for a short walk into the outside world. We went to the canal, as always, over the cobbles. The sky wasn’t quite blue, a typical Paris grey with a bright edge to it.

A very few cherry blossoms decorated some bare black branches. Slim daffodils surrounded the trees down the avenue. “It’s the first of March! Pinch and a punch!” I demonstrated, twice, to teach her the English phrase. We squeezed into the busy Ten Belles for cappuccinos with foam hearts, and a cookie. Bought a bag of fresh-ground Belleville Brulerie coffee for home, to go in our matching Moka pots. (Tasting notes: chocolate and forest fruits.) Then we walked and talked and walked some more.

Once home again, to celebrate my new ability to stand upright, I made a batch of the best cookies in the world. (Though Ten Belles’ version was pretty damn good: thin, crisp and chocolaty.) The recipe that uses nearly 600g dark chocolate, enough to fill a chopping board and spill over the edges.

spring, chocolate chip cookie

Three things I have learned since I first wrote about them: 1) to soften the butter, sandwich it between grease-proof paper and beat it with a rolling pin, v. satisfying; 2) to stop brown sugar from drying into a hard clump, peel a lemon with a vegetable peeler and stick a strip or two in the bag; 3) my oven will only bake 4 cookies at once (restraint) but I am not immune to eating frozen, raw cookie dough (total absence of self-discipline). Now there are thirty-something cookie balls in the freezer for me and the chocolate-obsessed flatmate, with control-freak cooking instructions posted on the door.

~~

For the perfect spring supper then: start with an afternoon of fresh air. Take frequent gulps. Then go home to a warm apartment. Have a friend or two come over with a fresh baguette and some Tomme de Savoie cheese. Slice a crisp apple. Alternate bites of bread, cheese and apple. Throw together a slapdash version of Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta, miraculously made of items in cupboard and freezer. Boil some water, salt it. Have your friend or flatmate chop some almonds while you blend frozen peas, yoghurt, olive oil and garlic. Toast the almonds with more olive oil and chili flakes. Cook spaghetti. (Keep sneaking bread, cheese, apple.)

spring, ottolenghi pea and yoghurt pasta

Toss everything together: pasta, peas, yoghurt sauce, mint, spicy oil and nuts and serve with some mâche (“lamb’s lettuce,” a nutty soft salad leaf) and a squeeze of lemon. Grate any cheese you haven’t eaten on top. Preheat the oven while you eat and admire the bright green meal. It has all the comfort of winter carbohydrates without the heft, a creamy sauce that isn’t rich, and a serving of spring-y vegetables without tasting smugly virtuous. The flavours were so clear and well-rounded that the cheese was almost superfluous. (I wouldn’t even add bacon, which normally improves everything.) It is the kind of vegetarian food where you forget there is a meat alternative, the reason Ottolenghi was such a success in his New Vegetarian column.

When you have scraped your plates, bake a ball of cookie dough each for exactly 17 minutes. By which time, your appetite will be just about piqued again. And a warm cookie on a paper napkin will be the right way to finish the meal. (Really it is a disc of melted chocolate with a thin cookie shell as a disguise.)

Be happy you can taste fresh air and pasta and cookies again, and look forward to the day when you can have exactly the same supper but outside, legs dangling over the canal.

spring, obsessive cookie instructions

Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta

makes enough for 2 hungry people or very 3 polite ones

The original version calls for fresh garlic, pinenuts, basil and feta, none of which I had in the house. Orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) collects the sauce better, but spaghetti is no less delicious. The beauty of this recipe is that it adapts well to whatever you have in your cupboards or freezer. I suggest freezing a bunch of mint for later use, for though it doesn’t look as pretty when defrosted it is useful in a hunger-emergency.

250g frozen peas (divided into 50g/200g)

250g plain natural yoghurt

2 tsp garlic-ginger paste

75ml olive oil (divided into 45ml/30ml)

30g whole almonds

scant 1 tsp chili flakes

250g spaghetti, or favourite pasta

handful mint leaves, roughly torn

salt and pepper

50g-100g mild cheese, grated (Tomme de Savoie)

half a lemon

(optional: several handfuls mâche, or lamb’s lettuce)

Put a large saucepan of water on to boil. (Or boil kettle, faster.) Blend 50g peas with yoghurt, garlic paste and 45ml olive oil until smooth. Tip into large serving bowl. Generously salt boiling water and add pasta. Heat remaining 30ml olive oil with chili flakes in a small frying pan. Roughly chop almonds and toast in the oil until golden-brown. Remove from heat. When pasta is nearly ready, add remaining frozen peas for a minute or two. Drain well. Toss half of pasta in sauce to coat well, then mix in the rest as well as the mint. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle chili-oil and almonds over the top. Serve with grated cheese and a squeeze of lemon, a handful of mâche on the side of each plate.

blueberry, chocolate and coconut soufflés

23 Jan

souffle 3

(The day I remembered I loved Paris, for future reference when the city seems cold and shrill once again.)

Woken by the sun and the commotion of traffic, earlier than a holiday, already three hours later than my workday, I pulled on a blue dress to walk to the corner bakery for breakfast. On the way back I snapped off the point of the baguette to test; at home I knocked over the clothes rack and woke you. We had our croissants dipped in coffee and apricots plump with juice.

Late as ever we caught the metro to the Opera Garnier, to be tourists for the morning. The guide asked the children in our tour group who might have designed the palatial structure: not a trick question. Charles Garnier was not long left the Beaux Arts, winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was asked to design a new opera house for Napoleon III. A rainbow of marble, intricate Italian mosaics and real gold leaf plastered everywhere lead into the main auditorium where we tipped our heads back to admire the scandalously modern Chagall ceiling, seven tonne chandelier and ring of soft globe lights, Garnier’s “pearl necklace.” We laughed to hear that the best seats had been designed to be seen, not to see the stage. On the roof there are beehives (honey sold at Fauchon down the street), while underneath in the reservoir that served for fire safety as well as acoustics, firemen fish for carp. We looked out over the main avenue, marvelled at the sheer scale and detail of the building. I learned things, for even after three years living here my list of sights is still unfinished. We worked up an appetite for our next eating, a short walk away.

On the menu were soufflés, savoury and sweet. An unassuming restaurant behind the fancy hotels that flank the Tuileries that offers a lunchtime menu of soufflé and green salad followed by soufflé and coffee. Brought with due pomp and circumstance, they did not risk falling; they were very stable but still light and airy inside. Rich with cheese and egg, really just an omelette dolled up for the opera in a hoop skirt, they are extremely satisfying to eat. Their colours decorated the plain dining room: craggy mountain green for spinach and goat’s cheese, tutu pink for raspberry. Chocolate has its own sauceboat. The Grand Marnier comes with a whole bottle to souse as liberally as you wish. Though some of the flavours veered on artificial (peach and apricot was too much like perfumed soap for me) overall the airy creatures were delicious, they were fun.

Blinking at the glare from the sun, we crossed the Tuileries for some lèche-vitrine in St-Germain. Literally “window-licking”, but we were too full even for Pierre Herme macarons. You suggested we see the Chagall expo in the Luxembourg gardens, inspired by the ceiling, a pathway through exile, love and grief all in primary colours. We had time for a swim, the cool water open to the air. You spotted the twins, a pair of identical seventy-year-old sisters in matching cap and costume (later, the same trousers and cardigans) that we had seen at a different Parisian pool years before.

Enough time to traipse home, less sticky and hot, to change for the opera. We were happily over-dressed for an under-done building – it wasn’t the morning’s gilt edifice but the rather more intimate Bouffes du Nord, discovered by Peter Brook in the 70s and left in its charmingly dilapidated state. The paint peels off the rusty-red walls, the front row is directly on the stage. Props comprised only some upright bamboo poles, to serve as palace and jungle and sword.  The whole surroundings left space for the ethereal music, The Magic Flute, sung in German, enough to give you chills; and the quick banter, mostly in French. It was short, an hour and a half of suspended time, breath held. Afterwards it took us a while to shake off the wonder, despite the prosaic metro ride home. You bought some mint from the Indian shop down the road; we sat on the balcony just big enough for two and ate salad. At 11pm, the traffic was still buzzing, the neon-clashing lights of the internet shop below still lit. We gazed at the tree above, talked about nothing and finally went to bed.

souffle 1

Tours at the Opera Garnier (in English at 11.30am and 2.30pm, Wed/Sat/Sun or every day in holidays and July/August)

Lunch at Le Soufflé, (€26 menu, best to book, tel: +33 142602719)

Swim at Piscine Georges Hermant (outdoor pool only in summer)

Opera, theatre, concerts at Les Bouffes du Nord

…and if we hadn’t been so tired, it would have been supper at the best (vegetarian) Indian in Paris, Krishna Bhavan.

~~

Since then, I thought soufflés a little intimidating to make at home, especially in my small oven. Rowley Leigh rescued me with his detailed and clear instructions that took up more of his column than usual. His soufflé Vendôme – a cheese one with a poached egg in the middle that miraculously stays runny – with tomato sauce is just right, rich and fluffy with the contrasting tang of tomato. Again for emphasis: it has a poached egg suspended in a cloud of cheese. Wondrous. So good in fact that I will do it no justice by paraphrasing, so here is the link: Rowley Leigh’s Soufflé Vendôme. He makes six starters, but for a main course you can make the same amount of mixture, only three poached eggs and bake in larger dishes (10cm).

Here is a dessert instead, one that worked first time and would be infinitely adaptable. It has a fruit base, with little pockets of melted chocolate and coconut for texture, and it rose like a dream. The blueberries did turn the egg whites an alarming shade of grey-blue but were delicious nonetheless. You can use frozen fruit since it is then cooked down into a jammy mixture, to recreate the summer, until it is time for dresses and pools again.

souffle 2

Blueberry,chocolate and coconut soufflés

From Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2013

Makes 6 – Works with cherries, raspberries or other soft fruit. Try to find shredded coconut rather than desiccated, it is chunkier and juicier.

Cocoa + soft butter for moulds

200g (frozen) blueberries

110g caster sugar, divided in half

15g cornflour

150g egg whites (5 eggs)

60g dark chocolate (70%)

40g shredded coconut + extra for sprinkling

Grease six small ramekins (or oven-proof coffee cups with straight sides) with the soft butter. Then tip in a teaspoon of cocoa and roll ramekin around until the sides are totally coated. Tip excess into next ramekin, repeat. Refrigerate.

Defrost blueberries and blend them roughly, leaving a few chunky bits. In a small saucepan, heat puree with half the caster sugar (55g) until it dissolves. Pour a little into a small bowl with the cornflour and mix well to remove lumps. Tip it back into the saucepan with the rest and simmer, stirring every now and then, for 10 minutes or so until thick like jam. Let cool.

Measure out the egg whites and remaining 55g caster in separate bowls. Chop the chocolate finely, weigh the coconut. Stop at this point, if you are not ready to eat dessert. Egg whites whip better at room temperature anyway. (Alternatively, make up the soufflés and refrigerate for 1 hour before baking.)

While serving the main course, heat the oven to 190C. When main course is over, boil the kettle. Then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the sugar gradually as it becomes opaque. Stir a spoonful of whites into the blueberries. Carefully fold everything together without losing the volume. Spoon into the six ramekins and smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help it rise. Sprinkle a little coconut on each. Place in a deep baking tray or roasting tin and fill it with the boiling water, halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 11-12 minutes. The soufflés should have browned and risen a couple of centimetres and feel firm to touch. Insert a skewer to check: it should have a bit of melted chocolate on it but not drippy mixture. Place each ramekin on a small plate and serve immediately.

poppy seed biscuits with beetroot and goat’s cheese

25 Oct

poppy beetroot biscuits

As a somewhat professional pastry person and therefore disqualified from competing, I have a lot of feelings about the Great British Bake off. Most of which I will spare you! My main grudge is that the contestants do not seem to tidy up after themselves, one cut and the bench is neat and tidy. Who is the kitchen elf that does the washing up? Where can I get one?

On the positive side, many of the challenges I have never attempted (the French are unaware of fondant fancies!) or would never try at home (puff pastry is meant for a pastry break, the great powerful laminating machine). So I learn things by watching. And since they are in competition for most original, the flavours are often unique combinations that are unusual in France.

This week I had an apéritif dinatoire (a drinks party with snacks) to prepare – and the home bakers had savoury canapés. The poppy seed biscuits with beetroot, made by Ruby, stuck in my mind. Though they look bright and elegant with the disc of jelly on top, I made an easier version, one more adapted to a crowd.

A simple poppy and buckwheat dough, rolled out and cut into irregular triangles with a pasta wheel. (Since they tesselate, it saves on scraps.) Then goat’s cheese mixed with mascarpone and a little milk to a smooth creamy paste. This can be piped on with a star tip for a hint of kitsch, or dolloped just so. Top with little cubes of plain cooked beetroot – or cut larger triangles to match the shape of the biscuits.

A perfect mouthful, the rather severe biscuits with the expansive rich cheese and earthy magenta beetroot.

~~~

Poppy seed biscuits with beetroot and goat’s cheese

original recipe with beetroot jelly on the BBC website

makes 40 small canapes

75g white flour

75g buckwheat flour (or rye, or wholemeal)

pinch of salt

80g butter

50g poppy seeds

2 tbsp water

100g soft goat’s cheese (the kind without a rind)

80g mascarpone

2-3 tbsp milk

pepper

2-3 small cooked beetroots

In a food processor, blend the flours, salt and butter until there are only pea-sized lumps. Add the poppy seeds then drizzle in the water until the dough starts to come together then bring together into a ball with your hands (add an extra tbsp water if needed). Push into a flat disc, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out quite thin and cut into irregular triangles. Bake at 175C for about 15 minutes. They should be crisp and ever so slightly golden around the edges. Let cool.

Mix the goat’s cheese, mascarpone and milk with some pepper to taste. Add more milk if needed, for a smooth pipable consistency. Finely dice the beetroot or cut into larger triangles to match the size of the biscuits. Pipe swirls of goat’s cheese, or or just dollop with a spoon, onto each biscuit and top with beetroot.

verveine icecream

27 Aug

verveine

 

What do you do with the egg yolks leftover from a batch of tuiles? Or macarons? What do you need to validate the existence of said tuiles?

Almost certainly icecream. Something light, sweet, subtle. Something herby for summer. You need icecream made with verveine or lemon verbena. It has a crisp delicate scent, somewhere between basil and citrus. And all you need is a basic vanilla icecream recipe. Except when you make the crème anglaise, instead of a vanilla bean, infuse 10 leaves of lemon verbena into the milk. Let it cool, refrigerate, then just before churning you can finely chop and add a few more fresh leaves along with some crème fraiche.

Dust off the antique icecream maker – that looks like a champagne bucket with a smaller bucket in the middle, with a curved handle. Inbetween goes a boatload of ice and fistfuls of salt. Then you just have to sit on the sofa with a book in one hand, lazily turning the handle. The wooden paddles will scrape the cooling cream from the sides and eventually go from a thick milkshake texture to a light gelato. Freeze, and consume with peach tart, with honey tuiles, or just with a spoon straight from the tub. Would work well with basil too.

005

 

 

wild garlic

5 Jun

wild garlic in cup

This piece was originally written for the new and shiny Gravity Serpent zine.

Most of my memories are punctuated by something edible, one great meal or a transcendent piece of cake. That weekend in Cornwall will always be linked to wild garlic for me. It fixes the people in my mind more firmly, anchored by the scent of cliff paths and the taste of waxy new potatoes scattered with green.

My granny is lemons, always lemons: her fresh lemonade, her sticky lemon curd on soft white bread and that one time, stitched into family lore, when I had seven helpings of her lemon pudding. Now at the bakery when we have to squeeze hundreds of lemons for our special crème au citron, I think of her. When you zest enough, the little puffs of lemon oil given off form a thin mist that sparks green in the gas-fired hobs. And the smell conjures up my granny instantly.

At the moment, in her letters she is telling me lots of stories about her father, my great-grandfather, who was a psychiatrist as well as the author of several books on plants. According to her, “Wild Foods of Britain” was dashed off in the week before he was called up to be a naval doctor in WWII. It is a thin volume with simple line illustrations, matter of fact descriptions of each foraged herb, fungus or weed, and recipes with now-curious names like frumenty, kissel and caragheen mould. He is erudite with a dry wit. My favourite line so far comes under Pig Nut (Conopodium denudatum):

‘Caliban dug them with his fingernails but most people prefer to use a kitchen fork.’

I never met him, never could have, but through the stories and recipes he belongs to me somehow. He is a solid figure. Now I pay attention to all the food around us for the picking, though I couldn’t identify a pig nut to save my life. On holiday with my university friends in Cornwall, we picked the delicate white flowers whose stems, crushed between our fingers, were reminiscent of chives, a more subtle version of shop garlic. Finely sliced over boiled potatoes, with the bell-shaped flowers as a garnish, they made a perfect accompaniment to my most travelled recipe, mustard chicken. The one that I make to thank my hosts but also, in a selfish act of immortality, to have them remember me. It has made it as far as Australia and even onto a café menu, of its own accord. You need to allow a whole chicken leg and thigh, a big dollop of crème fraiche and a heaping teaspoon of mustard per person. It will certainly be more mustard than you think wise, but persevere. Massage it all into the chicken with salt and pepper, some cumin seeds if there are any lying around, and bake in a very hot oven. The mustard’s bite is tamed by the heat, leaving a crisp skin that is delightfully savoury, full of flavour.

We passed around bowls and plates, spun wine on the lazy Susan, laughing and talking over one another. I listened from the stove, mixing a last minute icing for the fresh banana cake. On just a short weekend in a seaside cottage, I didn’t have all the right bits and pieces, no whisk, no icing sugar. So just a packet of cream cheese, several tablespoons of raspberry jam and a squeeze of lemon juices. Light and sweet, flower-pink, rich but not cloying. The cake too was easy: two mashed ripe bananas, three eggs, some melted butter (about 50g), one small water glass of sugar, two of self-raising flour and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Mixed with a fork, poured into a greased tin and baked at about 180C for about 30 minutes, just enough time to run to the supermarket for chicken and wine and to pick some wild garlic from the path.

Now when I think of that meal, I can conjure all of the faces around the table. I hope they recreate and share the food too, or at least the memory of it. Sending a recipe off into the ether is almost as good as writing a book. It is a tangible piece of the past, the wild captured on our plates. It keeps that moment in the present; it keeps my friends close, and my great-grandfather as close as he will ever be.

Find information about the zine at gravityserpent.wordpress.com – or email gravityserpent@gmail.com to get your hands on a real paper copy.

green & black’s chicken mole

4 May

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The only saving grace in drastically screwing up my holiday dates and arriving in England a week early for a planned holiday with friends was the book I had ordered, with the idea of savouring it on the beach in Cornwall. Luckily, I suppose, I didn’t make it out of London before I realised my mistake. My brother made me a cup of tea – “because I understand that’s what you do in these sorts of situations” –  I cried hysterically, bought three more Eurostar tickets and went back to Paris, and to the bakery for another week.

My colleagues teased me only a little, having waved goodbye to me and my overstuffed suitcase only 24 hours previously. The book went in my work bag along with neatly rolled apron, chef jacket and trousers.  It was Anne Lamott’s latest journal, about her grandson’s birth and her trip to India, ‘Some Assembly Required.’ On the way home after work I became so lost in her words I missed my metro stop and had to walk back, blinking at the bright sunlight.

Her honest open writing, her willingness and skill in describing her vulnerability, paranoia and love always amaze me, constantly make me laugh. Searching for a quote to read to a friend, I found a good one on every page. Liked a throwaway line about spring:

‘a few cool blue skies, new grass, wildflowers and I’m in love. You’re going to fall for that old magic trick again? Oh, yeah.’

Paris has welcomed me back with a scrubbed-clean spring face. She can be such a tease, playing it cold and distant for months, then just when you think you can cope without her, she magicks up some blossoms, begs for forgiveness. And I fall for it every time.

The sunshine makes all the difference, of course. Suddenly the words are unspooling in my head again, finally my desire to cook for myself has come back, long dormant. I love cooking for friends, guests, presents – but alone, tired, grumpy? Not so much. Rather like a good night’s sleep after a week at work, everything seems shinier in the spring. People seem more attractive. Or maybe the Parisians finally have smiles on their faces as they drink beer by the canal and swing their legs over the water.

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So I come home with energy and compassion, and fall on the recipe for Chicken Mole. Inspired by another book I received from a dear friend, ‘Like Water for Chocolate’  – a Mexican tale of magical realism, emotion poured into cooking – the casserole of chicken, tomatoes, paprika and chocolate transmitted all the love and warmth I had been missing over the winter.

Simple enough – you brown the chicken, cook some onions and garlic, add tins of tomatoes and beans and the final touch of chocolate and smoky chilis or paprika. (I snuck in a roasted red pepper and a little extra chocolate as well.)  Then stick the pot in the oven for the flavours to bind and deepen for at least an hour and a half. Today I served it over a plain accompaniment of brown rice and devoured half of it standing up by the window. It tasted earthy and wholesome, not specifically of chocolate so much as a complex blend of savoury flavour.  Tomorrow I will hunt for ripe avocados and corn tortillas as the recipe suggests, and I cannot wait. I am properly hungry again. It is a good feeling.

Next week I will be on holiday again, for real. The total cost of the aborted trip twists my insides a little, and it may well rain in Cornwall. But if I can hold onto the spring feeling regardless, and listen to the words and recipes growing … if I can weave half as good a story out of it – my seemingly endless screw-ups, my relationship with this tricky city – as Lamott does, then I will be extremely grateful.

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Chicken Mole

from the Green & Black’s ‘Unwrapped’ chocolate recipe book, as inspired by Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate‘ – they advise serving with avocado salad and corn tortillas, or, if for vegetarians, replacing the chicken with an extra tin of kidney beans 

should serve 4 

1 large red pepper

4 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)

2 tbs olive oil

2 large onions

2 garlic cloves

2 smoked, dried Jalapeno chili peppers, soaked in water

OR 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika

400g tin red kidney beans

400g tin chopped tomatoes

100g dark chocolate, min 60% cocoa solids

salt

~~~

Stab the red pepper all over with a fork and bake in a 200C oven until soft and blackened.

Brown the chicken in the olive oil in a large oven proof casserole. After a few minutes, when the chicken has a little colour, add the onions and garlic. When they are translucent, add the beans (with all the liquid in the tin), the tomatoes, 50g of the chocolate. Either chop the dried and soaked chilis and add them in along with the soaking water, or use the smoked paprika. Bring to a simmer.

By this time the pepper should be done. Lower oven temperature to 150C. Remove pepper stalk and seeds, then roughly chop it and add to pot. Cover and place in the oven for at least 90 minutes.

Skim off any fat. Taste and add the rest of chocolate if needed, as well as some salt.

strawberries and shortbread

22 Apr

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Making fun of the French is all too easy. It has become a bad habit that I wear as easily as my shapeless duffel coat. What can I say? Their typically closed-off rule-following ways make for good anecdotes.

There was the time I went to the department store BHV and needed to ask five (famously snooty) shop assistants before one would deign to point me in the right direction for a cake stand. There are the continual awkward encounters with neighbours, who have made small talk about the weather with me for two years, who have all accepted free cakes from my bakery – but will never introduce themselves. I know that the couple on the 6th floor has a cat named Carlos. They have given me flowers to thank me for said cake. But they still don’t feel obliged to share their names.

Then there is the insistence on correct grammar, a reverence for words that I totally understand but still find amusing when upside in a hot yoga class and a student takes the time and breath to correct the American instructor: it’s la cheville not le. 

My first year in Paris, my year abroad, I wanted to integrate. I actively avoided anglophones. However this led to living and working with only Italians, a pleasant and unexpected consequence. I learned how to salt pasta water (heavily) and that una forchettata (a forkful) means a good 150g portion. I practiced some French, tangentially, with friends of friends or as a stilted common language with the rare German or Polish colleague, all confused and a little annoyed to find themselves in the crossfire of Italian chatter in that most French of institutions in the very heart of the city, in the Louvre.

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The second time around, a year later, I tried again. Granted, I was living with another Italian girl, the charming flatmate. But we made an effort to meet Frenchies, joined capoeira class, made small talk at soirees. Slowly slowly though, I started meeting English-speaking friends, an American, a couple of nice Canadians. Several girls from my tiny hometown of Hereford, all escaped to France in search of adventure. And I got to be myself a little more – my voice is squeakier and much more prissy in French, whereas in English (I hope) I am funnier, more relaxed.

Maybe my frog-mocking is just self-protection: it’s hard to fit in with the French. To break the ice without asking what someone does for a living, to slip in the subjunctive like it’s no big deal, to know how the latest thoughtful and depressing movie fits into the director’s back catalogue. It’s a little like tagging along with a sophisticated older sibling, trying to keep up. Just like brothers and sisters, the French and the English seem to be endlessly in competition, always making fun of each other more or less affectionately. That’s my excuse anyway, for pandering to stereotypes, which do nonetheless have a small grain of truth in them. And they do it too; how many times have I admitted to being English only to hear an often misinformed diatribe about how terrible our food/weather/national character is. (Oh dear, I am being a bratty little sister: ‘He does it too! He started it!’)

In the end though, the fact that I am still here has to count for something. I like all of the other cliched ideas about France, that its people take art and aesthetics, fine food and wine so seriously. I have become the Parisian who wouldn’t live anywhere else, wouldn’t give up all the city’s expos and vernissages, its street theatre, but still relishes a weekend in the French countryside with its rustic charm and simple meals. I love going to market and peering at the heaping mounds of produce, asking for that one to be ripe for tonight’s supper and another for three days time. Their care and attention when it comes to food is a kind of open-house hospitality, welcoming you in for the best they have to offer. You taste the cassoulet and mi-cuit foie gras from the farm next door and you notice immediately their pride in their culinary heritage.

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All the eating is part of a larger whole, the expectation that having followed those rules, paid one’s dues – the reward is rest and relaxation. Though the two hour wine-soaked lunch is becoming less common, the French have three bank holidays in May alone (in the sunshine of course) and still make the most of their five weeks holiday a year, preferably for a long August vacation. The state is very generous with unemployment benefits – which includes free entry into museums and cultural institutions – with health insurance and with help towards paying the rent for students and those on a low wage, even for foreigners like me. Provided you fill in all the forms of course, that is the classic stumbling block. Once you have cleared that hurdle, you are free to wander the streets and markets, pretending to be French, hoping that your charming accent will go unnoticed for two more minutes.

On the subject of fresh ripe fruit from the market, the gariguette strawberries are finally in season. I rather bossily ordered a friend coming to dinner to pick me up a punnet or two for dessert “and definitely not any of those Spanish monstrosities.” Gariguettes are small and delicate and sweet, a more translucent red than the aggresively farmed ruby berries from Spain that are available all year around. These ones come out around March to June, and are extremely sensitive. They must be handled with care for they bruise easily. (Here I could make an unflattering parallel with a prissy Parisian, but I won’t.) They collapse in a puddle of juice when bitten into, releasing a sweet perfumed flavour that I had forgotten over the winter. Like having Italian sun-ripened tomatoes after months of those tough supermarket orbs, you remember when eating gariguettes what strawberries are supposed to taste like.

Though I was planned to make a fancy mousse cake with a jelly middle, iced and beribboned, in the end I left the strawberries whole and fresh in all their glory. We ate the shortbread base plain with some icing sugar, perfectly crumbly from the subtle addition of rice flour. The fruit was dipped in melted chocolate and honeyed cream. I should be promoting the extravagant cake, but really there is nothing nicer after a big meal than sharing big bowls of fruit, reaching across the table to grab at chocolate, making a pile of strawberry, shortbread and mascarpone for each bite. It was very companionable. In fact, this improvised pudding has the best of France, England and even Italy in all its basic ingredients.

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Strawberries and shortbread

technically feeds six polite people at a dinner party, but I like the shortbread so much I can eat most of it in one sitting (full disclosure, it comes from my mother’s book Seasonal Secrets)

125g butter, room temperature

50g caster sugar

125g plain flour

50g rice flour

1/2 tsp salt

zest of 1 lemon

to serve:

500g fresh ripe gariguette strawberries

more sliced fruit – kiwis or mangoes are good for colour contrast

200g dark chocolate, melted

250g mascarpone (or clotted cream)

3 tbs milk

1 tbs honey

Heat oven to 175C. Cream the butter and sugar, stir in flours, zest and salt until it just starts to come together. Line a tin with baking paper – I used a 22cm ring on a baking sheet to make  it easy to emove when baked – and press the dough firmly into it. Bake for 15-18 minutes until golden and just brown around the edges. Let cool.

When ready to eat, melt the chocolate gently over a pan of simmering water. Mix the mascarpone with the milk and honey to make a smooth dipping consistency. Cut the shortbread into diamonds and dust with icing sugar. Slice any other fruit neatly, serve the strawberries as they are. Plonk everything in the middle of the table and hand your guests skewers or fondue forks, let them help themselves.

goat’s cheese, walnut and chutney tartlets

2 Aug

For a summer evening by the lake in the artificially natural Buttes-Chaumont park. Little tartlets laid out on a tea towel, shoes kicked off. A panzanella salad to go with it. Ten minutes prep time, hours to lie on the grass.

Really just a mouthful of goat’s cheese, no frills. Make sure to use a rich, sticky-sweet chutney – mine was date and ginger.

Goat’s cheese, walnut and chutney tartlets

makes 12 bite sized tartlets

1 pack puff pastry (220g or so)

180g log of goat’s cheese

50g walnuts, broken into pieces

3 tbsp favourite chutney

2 eggs

1 tbsp milk

pepper

Preheat oven to 200C.

Roll out the puff pastry as thin as you can. Stamp out 12 circles with a large glass. Gently line a 12 hole cupcake tray with the pastry. Add 1/2 tsp of chutney to each, top with a few walnut pieces and a fat slice of goat’s cheese. Whisk the eggs with the milk and a bit of pepper, pour just a little over each tart. Enough to stick it all together, not as much as for a quiche. Bake for 10 minutes or so, until the pastry is puffed and brown, the cheese melted.

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