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jen’s magic mushrooms

17 Dec

jens mushrooms

In Lisbon, we learned the art of sharing – the scant prices always tricked us into ordering too much. One main course was largely sufficient for two, especially as we had already eaten the olives, brown bread and queijo fresco brought as a cover charge.

In Madrid, we learned about small bites at the Mercado San Miguel – a cone of jamon iberico from one stall, two stuffed olives from another, a few croquetas, a pinxto with salt cod and caviar and one with octopus.

At home, I have been trying to learn that less is more. Instead of worrying about three courses when friends come over, now I offer soup and baguette and cheese. For dessert, a bowl of tangerines, maybe some sesame shortbread and yoghurt. A few flavours at a time, and really good ingredients.

Last night, we had a vernissage at home. (Which means varnishing day, literally, the day before the exhibition when the artist adds the finishing touches to the hanging pictures and their friends come over to chat and criticise and drink champagne.) I wanted a few snacks, inspired by the Iberian peninsula. There was a simple potato tortilla with coarse salt on top. Three red peppers, roasted whole, peeled and marinated in olive oil. Bread and liver paté. And after eating some incredible cepes at Botin, the ‘oldest restaurant in the world’, these stuffed mushrooms.

This is the perfect party dish for the holidays, since the effect outweighs the effort ten times over. It could have a myriad of additions, herbs, truffle salt, pistachios… but in the spirit of simplicity, the mushrooms are perfect as they are. Since you only need two ingredients, you can buy them on the way to a party and make them on arrival. Good for vegetarians too! I can’t take any of the credit though: they come from Jen, founding member of the Grape Leaf Club and Thanksgiving host extraordinaire.

Jen’s Magic Mushrooms

makes a plateful

500g white mushrooms (champignons de Paris)

150g Boursin cheese with garlic and herbs

black pepper

Snap all the stems out of the mushrooms, keep them for something else. Brush any dirt off the mushroom caps then fill the holes with Boursin. Grind black pepper generously over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200C. Serve warm.

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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.

rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

8 Feb

salmon salad 3

Travelling is best when you can put on someone else’s life for the weekend, see a city through a local’s eyes. Visiting yet another cousin, I was happy to bypass Parliament House and go straight to the farmer’s market early Saturday morning instead. I tagged along to a yoga class and ran a race with her in the nearby mountains. I liked her version of the green city that involved a lot of walking, with breaks for vegan chocolate chip cookies in a bar decorated with skulls and cacti. I liked that it was small enough that we bumped into her friends everywhere we went, to the extent that one of them joked he had been paid to make her seem popular. I liked that the woman in the Chinese supermarket knew and joked with her when we bought lychees and coconut milk.

Maybe it was all of the outdoors that made me hungry, the scent of gum trees and crackle of leaves underfoot, but I especially liked the supper we cooked together, better than any restaurant. It was her weekly standby, one she is happy to eat again and again, changing a few ingredients but keeping the basics: salmon marinated in fish sauce, pan-fried to give it a crisp brown edge; a bowl of greens, cucumber and lettuce and onion; the unexpected addition of lychees, canned were fine; and a lime-chili-fish sauce dressing. It was fresh, salty, tangy with plenty of crunch and bite from the chili. The generous handfuls of herbs and that addictive dressing made it totally addictive. I made it twice more in the next ten days, not always giving Rebecca the full credit! So here is her official acknowledgement; this will go down in my cavallo di battiglia folder to be made over and over.

~~~

For an easy dessert along the same theme, mix equal quantities of leftover lychee juice and coconut milk to make a quick and unusual granita: pour into a shallow metal dish and freeze for 3-4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes to break up the crystals. Serve plain or with fresh mango.

~~~

Rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

Originally adapted from Bill Granger

Feeds 2-3 people, depending on appetite

2 salmon steaks

3 tbs fish sauce

1 tbs brown sugar

1 bag mixed leaves

1 cucumber

1 red onion

½ bunch coriander

½ bunch basil

1 tin lychees

Dressing:

1 small red chili

Juice of 2 limes

1 ½ tbs fish sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Marinate salmon in fish sauce and sugar. Meanwhile slice the red onion as finely as possible, cut the cucumber into rounds, tear up the herbs, tip it all into a large salad bowl with the leaves. Drain lychees, reserve the juice and add the fruit to the salad. Cut up the chili (remove the seeds if you don’t like it too hot) and mix with lime juice, fish sauce, 1 tbs of the lychee juice. Taste and adjust accordingly, so it makes a nice balance between sweet, sharp, salty and hot. Pan fry the salmon until crisp around the edges, breaking it up into chunks in the pan as it cooks. Tip onto salad and pour over the dressing. Toss the salad, taste again and add more salt-sweet-sour if necessary.

butternut, lentil and ginger soup

11 Oct

004

Halfway to the metro stop is an Indian grocery shop, open until the small hours. I pop in for milk and butter and get distracted by yellow split peas, coconut oil, natural peanut butter, things that can’t be found in French supermarkets. Plantains, orange flower water. Large bags of hazelnuts and almonds are much cheaper too. I stock up on grilled and salted corn kernels, for the new English flatmate and I are addicted, and crystallised ginger.

There is always a friendly word and a smile. Once they added a jar of ginger-garlic paste  to my bag as a gift. It is a perfect pick-me-up for a nearly bare fridge, with stir-fried cabbage or chicken or chickpeas. Yesterday I bought red lentils for a kitchen cupboard soup. Squash keep well for a long time, and even make a nice decoration. Chicken stock (from the freezer) really rounds out the flavour for a satisfying rich taste. Everything else came from the cupboard. I baked the squash before going out in the morning, then barely needed half an hour before lunch to make a hearty meal.

I was worried it would be boring, but the soup had depth, sweet and spicy. The lentils make it filling, needing only a baguette with some blue cheese for sharp contrast. And it was a perfect autumn colour.

~~~

Obviously you can use fresh garlic and fresh ginger, but it is useful to have a jar of ginger-garlic paste and a jar of curry paste on hand. Peek into the Indian grocery stores around La Chapelle and Gare du Nord for inspiration.

~~~

Butternut, lentil and ginger soup

serves 4

1 butternut squash

2 onions

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp ginger and garlic paste

1 tsp madras curry paste

200g (1 cup) red lentils

125 ml  (1/2 cup) white wine

750ml (3 cups) chicken stock

salt and pepper

extra water

Peel and thickly slice butternut squash. Bake in a 200C oven with a little olive oil and salt until soft and caramelised around the edges.

Roughly chop the onions, sautee in olive oil until translucent. Add the ginger and garlic paste and garam masala, stir for a minute. Add the lentils and let them toast for a minute as well. Pour in the white wine and chicken stock. Cover and let simmer until the lentils are cooked through. It won’t take long. Meanwhile, cut up the roasted squash, then add to cooked lentils.

Blend everything together (careful not to burn yourself on the hot liquid/steam). Taste and season with salt and pepper. You may need to add up to 250ml extra water depending on how thick you like it.

Serve with crusty bread and a sharp cheese.

cucumber, melon and yoghurt gazpacho

9 Aug

Like most things in life, there is an easy way and a hard way.

You can throw an elaborate Sunday brunch for all your friends. (Menu may or may not include ridiculous impossible mushroom quiche; warm potato salad with gherkins and sunflower seeds; cucumber and melon salad with mint, mocha maracons, cream cheese brownies and peach cake with chili sugar.)

Bake frantically for three days between night shifts on chocolate duty at work, wake up early to clean apartment, painstakingly filter 3 litres of cold-brewed iced coffee.

Enjoy being a hostess, if a little like a pushy Italian mamma. Eat, eat, why aren’t you eating?

The next morning, drowsy and still a little full from all the eating, find just a bowl of wilted melon salad left over. Blend with a little yoghurt. Discover it to be delicious and refreshing, worthy of both a restaurant and a hangover cure. The downfall of the salad – a little too juicy between the honeydew melon and the cucumber – is a positive boon for a soup.

It is a beautiful pastel green, with a slight crunch. Sweet and cool, definitely a starter for a hot summer day.

Or, alternatively:

Chop some cucumber, melon and mint. Add a few cubes of feta, yoghurt. Blend and serve with a sprig of mint.

So, which way was more fun?

Cucumber melon and yoghurt soup

per person:

1/2 cup diced cucumber, seeds removed

1/2 cup diced honeydew melon

1/2 cup (125ml) natural yoghurt

a few cubes of feta cheese, preferably marinated with oil and herbs

mint leaves

salt

Deseed and peel melon and cucumber. Chop roughly. Blend with yoghurt and feta and some mint. (If plain feta, add just a drop of olive oil to the mix.) Salt to taste. Chill for a couple of hours. (Or stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes, blend again.)

Serve very cold with a few mint leaves on top.

hearts and lungs and round courgettes

27 Jul

Say you are watching your mother crack open the spine of a raw chicken, curious as she flattens it out into a “toad shape”. She pulls out the heart and lungs, still attached, cleans up the unappealing bloody bits. Then she leaves you alone with one spatchcocked chicken and its insides and an invitation to prepare supper.

You look at the gizzards a little suspiciously. Apparently you have eaten and enjoyed them before, fried up in hearty Gascon salads, disguised by leaves and croutons and foie gras. The heart is tiny, ressembles nothing more than the tip of a bloody finger. The lungs are peculiarly beautiful, not spongy as you would expect, but firm. A rich purple with an oyster-blue sheen from the membrane. They do look like an odd sea creature, a little alien but potentially delicious.

So you fry some shallots in butter, because nothing can go wrong there. (Actually, you may burn them slightly, but this adds to the complex flavour, you convince yourself.) You scoop out the insides of three tiny round courgettes; might as well butcher some vegetables as well as a poor chicken. Push the shallots to one side, sear the heart and lungs quickly, remove from the pan. While you are struggling to remove the meat from its membrane, you saute the courgette stomachs in the meat juices, add torn up breadcrumbs, herbs. Dice the meat very finely.

Finally, you stuff the spherical courgettes with your wilted and peppery gizzard mixture, put on their hats and bake them along with the chicken that has been covered in cream and obscene amounts of mustard.

When you sit down to dinner, you are ready to apologise in case the surprise ingredient is tough, bitter, too odd. It isn’t. It is delicious. You relax.

cream cheese, cucumber and tomato sandwich on rye bread

9 Jul

One of my favourite stories. The moral is: books are good. Or books will get you bitten by a snake. Or, the best books have recipes in them.

Ready?

Once, on holiday in the south of France, an adder slid into the cool tiled house. It curled up like a family pet next to my dad, who was reading the paper. He looks down, calm, folds up the paper. Tiptoes out of the sitting room and shuts the door. While my mother screamed and stood on a chair like a classic cartoon – in another room entirely – my father went to get a spade and a pillowcase.

Because in my favourite children’s books of all time, about Frances the Badger, her greedy chauvinist friend Albert the Badger is really good at catching snakes. With a spade and a pillowcase. (He also likes to eat lobster salad sandwiches.)

Unsurprisingly, our snake is not up for pillowcase fun. It slides into a hole in the wall, lurks while the hole is filled up with cement, then eats his way out again. One sluggish white ghost-snake, belly full of cement, finally submits to the spade treatment. I think my dad goes back to reading the paper.

I wish he was still around to help me wrangle snakes. Or start my own business. Even just write a killer cover letter. I guess Albert the Badger and I will have to hang out instead. The book’s description of his normal school lunch is one which my father would have thoroughly enjoyed:

“What do you have today?” said Frances.

“I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread,” said Albert. “And a pickle and a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos bottle of milk.

And a bunch of  grapes and a tangerine. And a cup custard and a spoon to eat it with.”

Do I need to tell you how to make a sandwich? The most important thing, from the illustrations at least, is the napkin and tablecloth, maybe a tiny vase of flowers. You set out all your elaborate lunch particles with care, try everything and make it all come out even.

 

Albert’s cream cheese, cucumber and tomato sandwich on rye bread

serves one badger

(cheese spread from the uber-healthy 101 cookbooks)

2 tbs cream cheese

1 tbs butter, softened

pinch salt / pepper

dash of paprika

1/2 tsp mustard

2 small pickles / gherkins, chopped finely

1/2 small shallot, also chopped finely

1 firm tomato

1/2 cucumber

2 slices rye or seedy wholegrain bread

chives for decoration

Vigourously mix the cream cheese and butter. Add salt pepper, paprika and mustard to taste. Stir in the shallots and pickle. Slice the cucumber and tomato as thinly as possible. Spread cheese spread over the bread, top with alternate slices of cucumber/tomato. Add a fine drizzle of olive oil, if you like, and a sprinkle of chives.

Optional: hard-boiled egg, tangerine, cup custard.

*This is us, in France. I am gnawing on a baguette, obviously.

roquefort and artichoke crostini and/or tagliatelle

10 Jun

What could possess me to invite seven Italians over and serve them pasta?

I should know better: I always cede the pasta cooking to the charming Italian flatmate. I make soup and muffins and quiche, but stand back for the all-important question of al dente.

But I really wanted to learn how make pasta like a nonna. And I openly want to be a member of their loud ebulliant tribe. So I weighed the flour and counted the eggs, put the water on to boil. Made some crostini in case the pasta took ages.

When they arrived, poor things, they were hustled into the kitchen a few at a time to prod the dough, add a little water, catch the pasta sheets as they rolled through the machine. And I learned a few things after last time: that the ball of dough should be firm enough not to stick to the counter, that it should rest a little before rolling. That you can sprinkle the tagliatelle with flour and stack them without worrying about sticking, you don’t have to hang them over all the cupboard doors as my mum used to.

We had made an olive and tomato sauce that was used up on the first go-round. Still hungry but more skilled, we rolled some extra pasta. In place of a sauce, we used the leftover crostini topping: mashed roquefort, a spoonful of mascarpone, a tin of artichoke hearts, diced, and a squeeze of lemon. Keep a bowl of it in the fridge for dips, for sandwiches and crostini. And if you feel like pasta, just loosen the mix with a splash of pasta water. Extra pepper, parmesan for sprinkling and that’s it.

The more you learn about Italian food, the more you learn that there is no recipe. No weight, only handfuls, pinches. (It should be a good fistful of salt in the pasta water, by the way!) No “knead for exactly 6 minutes”, only until it’s smooth.

Practice, practice, practice. Plus a large troop of Italians and a bowl of roast chickpeas to stop them from going hungry while they cut infinite strands of tagliatelle.

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