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macaroni and three cheeses

2 Nov

macaroni cheese, candles

Maybe you had a bad day. Maybe you came home tired and needed to take off your shoes and your smile. Maybe your day was fine, right up until someone asked, really asked, how was your day? and instead of saying, yes, fine, you cry unapologetically for an hour. Maybe you just wept while they reassured you, feeling selfish to be sad, but without the energy to protest. Maybe because you didn’t resist, their words washed over you and into you and made you cry again, but in relief.

By this time it is probably nearly ten o’clock, and you are tired and your cheeks are tight with salt tears, the opposite of a day at the beach. But something they said stuck with you, take care of yourself first. Make your own bed, serve yourself something you would cook for two.

If you are hungry now, or at least curious for food, you boil the kettle, heat a pot with water, salt. Stare at the water blankly. Then you look through the cupboards for something to eat – rice, potatoes, bulgur wheat. Is there any pasta? Please be pasta. Tip some elbow things, macaroni, into the boiling water, enough for one, two. Serve yourself something as nicely as if it were for someone else as well. There is just a tablespoon of butter, enough for a roux with a tablespoon of flour. Cook, stirring, in a small saucepan until nutty, then whisk in a cup of milk a little at a time. Maybe you spill some of the milk, but you don’t cry again.

There are odds and ends of cheese in the fridge from different adventures: stinky Epoisses, smoked Idiazabal, Cashel blue. You spend a minute grateful for your wanderings. Crumble or grate the cheese, and toast a few walnuts in the oven. By now the pasta is cooked, the béchamel thick, speckled with nutmeg and pepper. A bit lumpy, you don’t care. It all goes into a little baking dish – macaroni, cheese, sauce, walnuts – more grated cheese on top and into the still hot oven. You may still be tired, eyelids at half-mast, but your curiosity and appetite have been piqued. You might have made something truly delicious.

There is exactly one glass of red wine left from the night before. The pasta takes seven minutes to brown on top, which is all you need. Lettuce, dressing. By ten thirty you have dinner. Eat straight out of the baking dish, candles lit. Comfort food for company, for one.

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dukkah

21 Dec

coriander jar

The recipe has been in my diary since the summer, when I re-read Laurie Colwin’s “More Home Cooking”. Her food is down-to-earth and her stories gently funny; I liked the one on what to feed a jetlagged friend (something salty so they drink lots of water). The image that really stuck with me though was that of her sister (maybe? the book is still in the south of France) caught guiltily eating this spice mix, dukkah, out of the jar with a spoon.

Now eating Nutella by the spoonful, that I understand. But a mix of nuts and seeds, cumin, coriander and cinnamon? Surely that would be too dry, too strong?

Talking with a friend the other day – she is on the kitchen stool with a glass of wine, I am testing the recipe, blending the toasted spices and nuts, stopping and starting around the conversation – we realise that much as ex-smokers tend to be the most vehemently anti-smoking, people that have had issues with eating disorders tend to be largely impatient  with others’ dietary requirements, intolerances, particular preferences. She says she is gluten-free now, last week it was lactose. He only ate half the piece of cheesecake, claimed he was getting love handles. Obviously I know that there are medically diagnosed problems, food allergies. I know that. She knows that. Nonetheless as if we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, our obsessions, we are the most judgemental.

Smell that. I open the lid of the food processor, releasing a toasty cinnamon air. Good right?

But when walls are broken down, when someone admits to suffering, to have suffered from disordered eating, it is amazing how quickly others will respond with me too! Without that kinship, it would be admitting to weakness, to vanity, to a preoccupation with the self in a world of much more tangible problems.

We each dip a finger to taste the crumbly rubble, not quite a powder. Oooh.  We taste it again. It is like earth and fire, full of warmth.

cinnamon, cumin and pepper jars

It isn’t about being thin or pretty but feeling full or empty. From the beginning of university until not so long ago, I struggled with food. Push and pull. I ate my feelings, as everyone does occasionally. It went from once a month to almost every day, when I could count the ‘good days’ (tuna and rye crackers) one hand in that month.

We try it on some sourdough, spread with honey and goat’s cheese and topped with a baker’s pinch of dukkah (all fingers at once, not just finger and thumb). That will be breakfast and snacks for the next two days until the loaf runs out.

And then, slowly, sometime in the last year and a half it faded towards the horizon. It stopped being ‘I am’ this thing, this disorder that defines me, and became ‘I have’ and ‘I used to have’. I can feel its imprint on bad days, a worn pathway, a feeling of too much too full too frantic. Asked to describe it once, I said that when anxious I felt a balloon inflating in my chest and the only way to remove it was to fill myself up until I was a sack of concrete.

Now I remember how to feel physically hungry, not just emotionally empty. My feelings are not always in check – nor should they be – and sometimes it surprises me the forged link of hunger/sadness. Two days ago I finished class in a terribe mood, sure that everyone hated me, inexplicably miserable. Then, wait, I realised, I had been too busy to eat lunch. All I needed to right my self-esteem was a quick sandwich of baguette, cured ham and salad, with a sprinkle of more dukkah. (I ‘borrowed’ some from the jar in my handbag I was giving away as a gift. Sorry Jen!)

Where am I going with this? For one, more people than you would think will own up to those moments in the kitchen at midnight, guiltily nursing that spoon, if only you know how to ask the question. It is a relief to say, me too. Hopefully this does not read as melodramatic or self-centred. I just know that a few years ago I would have loved to know someone with the same experience, someone who made it out the other side. I would have felt less ashamed.

And secondly, this spice mix, dip, topping, whichever, is my favourite thing I have made all year. It is redolent with spices, savoury and sweet, salty. Hot with black pepper but tempered with the hazelnuts and sesame seeds, so that it can be used in generous spoonfuls rather than pinches. Of course, when I googled it I discovered it has been fashionable in the food world for at least a decade now, in all of my favourite blogs: 101 Cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen and now in David Lebovitz’s new book. And more importantly, in Egypt for centuries: street vendors serve cones of dukkah, or duqqa, with bread and olive oil for dipping. I cannot wait to serve it over boiled eggs, potatoes, soups, avocado toast… My flatmate makes home-made fermented-milk yoghurt which is incredible with dukkah and honey. I think Laurie Colwin would approve.

hazelnuts sesame and salt

Dukkah

Friends and family in the near vicinity, you may be getting a jar of this for Christmas. For those of you far away, I won’t risk posting sachets of mysterious powder, so you will have to make your own. This makes a generous quantity, three jam jars full, or many spice jars (save empty ones from the supermarket for your presents). You won’t regret making a big batch, especially if you go to the trouble of buying coriander and cumin seeds, might as well use them. Adjust to taste: add more nuts for a milder flavour, more pepper for more heat. Enjoy on everything.

115g ( 1 cup) hazelnuts

150g (1 cup) sesame seeds

15g (3 tbs) cumin seeds

20g (1/4 cup) coriander seeds

15g (1 1/2 tbs) black peppercorns

15g (1 tbs + 1 tsp) coarse sea salt

12g (2 tbs) ground cinnamon

Toast the nuts / seeds / spices one kind at a time in a dry frying pan. Shake it every now and then to cook evenly. When they smell toasty, tip into food processor and do the next lot. (If you want to skin hazelnuts, tip them still hot into a tea towel and rub firmly to remove skins.) Add the salt and cinnamon, no need to toast, and blend everything to a rubble, not too fine a powder. My food processor does not do very well with the peppercorns so I crush them roughly first with a makeshift mortar and pestle: rolling pin and mug.)

Divide into jars. Eat on everything.

chickpeas and chocolate (not together)

13 Mar

cheap and cheerful chickpeas crop 1

We really do live on chickpeas and chocolate in our flat. They are permanently on our shopping list, the Bio 70% dark chocolate and those squat tins of chickpeas. (While soaking and cooking them is admirable and more economical, I have never been organised enough to do so.) My flatmate eats them plain with olive oil and salt. I found a new recipe for a spicy chickpea salad in the Avoca cookbook, that I made with barley. It was a perfect prepare-ahead salad, robust and complex. But I thought I had written about them too much – after all, they are in my:

They turn up at almost every dinner party I have, especially if impromptu, in the guise of a quick hummus or as a roasted, salty snack. So they were my obvious choice for the 1 ingredient – 3 ways competition on They Draw And Cook. A site I have been meaning to submit to for years now. It is not so easy, making a comprehensible recipe into graphic form. This is my first attempt. Individual chickpeas are very satisfying to draw! But I need to work on my illustration and I will certainly be trying another recipe sometime soon. Check out their other artists for dinner inspiration – or try They Draw And Travel for a new way to explore the world.

cheap and cheerful chickpeas crop 2

essentials: truffle salt

18 Oct

radishes, truffle salt

It does sound pretentious, I know that. I also know that I recommended celery salt for much the same reasons – but my whole kitchen now smells of truffles, I am hooked by their deep, dark fragrance. My allegiances have been changed, gentrified, bobo-ised.

Truffle salt for the best crispy roast chicken skin.

Truffle salt with butter and purple, pink and yellow radishes.

Truffle salt on the last of the summer tomatoes, ones that are bright green but still ripe.

(These last two from the market gardener preferred by Paris chefs, Joel Thiébault. His stall at the President Wilson market is not as pretty as the others in this chic market, as in, his produce is not arranged in fans and pyramids but plunked down in a practical fashion. But he has three colours of Swiss chard, kale otherwise unheard of in Paris, orange beetroots and purple cauliflowers. When I had queued patiently to pick out my tomatoes I told him, “they look beautiful” and he retorted, “they taste good, more important.” He was right – they had too much flavour to cook with, requiring only salt and oil.)

hardboiled

Where was I? Truffle salt on hard boiled eggs.

Truffle salt on a humble spinach flan, my new obsession.

Admittedly sometimes it is just : truffle salt, open the lid and breathe in. (Perhaps I have a problem?)

rainbow tomatoes

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.

essentials: celery salt

3 May

Big flakes of salt to be crushed satisfyingly between fingertips, blended with dark celery seed. It sounds frivolous, far from essential and yet – it adds a touch of care to a plain boiled egg, makes a real salad out of avocado and green leaves. For asparagus vinaigrette or tomato soup. Maybe even for chocolate chip cookies. Use it for the tactile pleasure as much as its neat clear flavour.

Make your own: rub some flaky sea salt with crushed celery seeds, or lemon zest, or fresh dried thyme. Brighten up a boring luncheon.

essentials: rum

17 Mar

When she was sick, Emily’s mama used to make her hot honey and lemon, with cinnamon sticks and a glug of rum. It is practically medicinal, rum, it’s so useful in the kitchen. If you can get your friends to smuggle the good stuff back from Martinique, all the better.

  • Marinate bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for a spiced cocktail a la Reunion
  • Add a splash of rum to a plain apple or almond cake instead of vanilla
  • Speculoos – not just for Christmas – excellent with a little dark rum
  • Mash up lime and sugar with white rum for the always cool capirinha

essentials: star anise

10 Mar

Cinnamon sticks are over. Star anise are a better shape, more intriguing.

  • Add one to Swedish pea soup for a mysterious twang
  • Prepare a simple syrup with sugar, water star anise and lemon juice to marinate winter fruit salad
  • Poach pears with white wine and star anise – serve plain with whipped cream or sliced and baked into an almond tart
  • Float them in cocktails just for their pretty star petals

N.B. Do not leave to soak overnight in soup/fruit salad – gives a weird burnt taste – too strong.

essentials: lemon and grapefruit

3 Mar

Lemons were one of the most precious cooking ingredients during rationing – for their promise of sunnier shores, for the sharp clear flavour from only a few drops. My grandfather supposedly threw out the juice of a lemon, carefully squeezed, patiently waiting to go into a cake. He thought it was cabbage water. That my granny tells the story fifty years later means it must have been special.

Of course, there is nothing nice than her lemon drizzle cake, the sharp juice seeping into the warm sponge, a layer of sequinned sugar left on top.

  • To perk up any drab cake: pour a mix of granulated sugar and lemon juice over a cake just out of the oven, let it absorb the goodness.
  • Blend the zest with more sugar for a fragrant blend to liven up shortbread cookies and scones.

Grapefruit too seems to go with everything – especially because of its brash pink flesh, just sour enough to suck.

  • Make an instant yoghurt sorbet with grapefruit juice, freeze and enjoy. Serve with the famous lemon pudding!
  • Use the grapefruit in a happy winter salad: feta and croutons and endives and prosciutto.
  • Try grapefruit jellies with jewelled pomegranate seeds suspended inside.

essentials: yoghurt

24 Feb

  • For a creamy, healthy pasta sauce: stir a teaspoon of flour into an individual pot of yoghurt. Fry some salmon, add the yoghurt, stir until thick. Serve with soba noodles, spinach and a squeeze of lemon.
  • For the classic French cake: mix 1 pot of plain yoghurt, 1 pot of oil, 3 eggs. Add 2 pots worth sugar, 3 pots flour and a sachet levure (2 tsp baking powder). Chocolate chips, orange zest, vanilla optional. Bake for 40 minutes, 180C.
  • For a Swiss breakfast: stir yoghurt, oats and grated apple, leave overnight. Top with hazelnuts and honey
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