Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hooray, Hooray the 1st of May

J has a variety of friends from all walks of life - from his school days thirty odd years ago through to those that he has acquired more recently. And of course there is one friendship that is nearly two years old and which has blossomed into something else, but that's the subject of an entirely different and personal blog.

As with any group of people whom have known each other for years, J's friends have a number of rituals that mark the passing of each year. Lives change, partners come and go, children swell the numbers and yet the essential rites of passage remain the same. One such event is the annual Pimms Party which signifies the official start of Summer. Hence, whatever the date of said party, 'Hooray Hooray the 1st of May, outdoor sex beings today' is the huzzah of choice. (No, I don't really understand the whole thing either).

D and P were the generous hosts of this year's party and it was an opportunity to christen their new garden. Or it would have been had the heavens not decided to pour forth their scorn with a soaking of drizzle accompanied by a chilly wind. Not exactly garden party conditions. However, in true British spirit, that which singles us out as the only nation curious (and some would say mad) enough to picnic outdoors, come hell or high water, the party continued. In the kitchen. Where all parties end up gravitating regardless of where they commence. (Does this happen the world over or is that also a British trait?)

For me each season has a distinct taste and texture. Winter is the time for long, slow cooking that allows flavours to marry and to develop into rich and soothing casseroles with their soothing smoothness. The season for the deep, red fruit flavours of old vine Grenache and Syrah.

Spring is synonymous with the new season of fresh greens; asparagus, spring cabbage, onions, purple flowered broccoli and the welcome tart relief of forced rhubarb. And of course, Summer with its berries, bursting with colour that bleeds onto one's fingers and stains one's lips with their unctuous juices. With fresh crisp salads, silky goats cheese and the chilled grassy flavours of French Sauvignon Blanc.

But there is one combination of flavours, other than the obvious strawberries and cream, that typifies an English summer for me; that of gooseberries and elderflower. I only have to hear the very words and images of cricket whites and village greens fill my mind.

So the obvious contribution to the ultimate Pimms party had to be an elderflower and gooseberry sponge cake. I cannot recall from whence this recipe came as I found it amongst my treasure trove of 'must make' clippings, amassed over the past few years. However from the smeared plates and happy grins, I surmised that it hit the summery nail on the head.

Gooseberry and Elderflower Cake
225g unsalted butter, softened
200g golden caster sugar
4 medium eggs, beaten mixed with
4 tbsp elderflower cordial
225g self-raising flour

142ml pot double cream
2tbsp elderflower cordial
5tbsp gooseberry conserve
icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Grease 2 x 20cm sandwich tins and line the bottoms with baking parchment.
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and cordial mixture a little at a time with a spoonful or so of the flour (this prevents dreaded curdling). Stir in the rest of the flour and gently combine. The mixture should easily plop off the spoon when tapped - if necessary add a touch more cordial to soften.
Spoon equal amounts of the mixture into the cake tins and level. Put on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until the cakes are springy to the touch and have a beautiful golden hue. Allow the cakes to rest in the tins for five mins and then turn out onto wire racks. Peel of the baking paper when cool.

For the filling;
When ready to serve, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks (boyfriends come in very handy at this stage) and stir in the cordial. Spread the top of one cake with the gooseberry jam and then top with the cream. Sandwich the cakes together and then dust with icing sugar.

Note: if traveling with the cake, assemble it upon arrival - we learnt the hard way and oh my, is gooseberry jam slippery!

Oh and the outdoor sex? Not in 10 degrees centigrade with a howling gale. Nature's answer to birth control.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Whiff of the Future

Whilst sitting at a desk in the offices of my client, pensively staring at the beautiful green domed roof of Smithfields market, fingers pressed together in a prayer position against my mouth, wondering how best to deal with an increasingly awkward situation, I breathed in deeply, hoping for calm. What I was to receive was the most delicate hint of garlic from my fingertips.

A smile played on my lips as the smell evoked a feeling of comfort, the pleasure of creating a dish the previous evening, of conjuring up a recipe, of cooking for the man I love after he'd battled through a weary and frustrating day. Of the important things in my life. My breathing slowed, my shoulders eased as the tension ebbed out of me and I remembered why I am working as a consultant - to give me time to work out if I can find a way into the world of food. Officially.

I sat up straight, thrust my glasses along the bridge of nose and resolved to redouble my efforts; not only with the task in hand that day, but also with my search for a new career.

If persevere, my food future will happen. I have to believe that.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hake Days and Holidays

My return to the land of 'serious work' has, by choice, been on a part-time basis on the grounds that I could devote time and energy to working out how, indeed if, I can turn my passion for food and writing into something that could financially fill more of my life. Also it's a time to try different things out - an eight week stint in a chocolate shop was fun but I soon realised that life behind a counter is not for me. An evening food journalism course was exciting and has left me hungry for more. And yet I am still struggling to find my way.

Plus, of course, it is amazing how quickly those 'spare' two days are filled with house hunting, running errands and recently, traveling. So last Friday I was determined to do something food-related so headed to Borough Market for inspiration.

The market on Saturdays is now almost impossible to navigate unless visited at the crack of dawn due to the coach loads of gastro tourists, however Fridays are slightly less bustling with a strange but happy mixture of suits buying their lunch, serious shoppers seeking ingredients for the weekend and, of course, the ubiquitous film crews.

Mindful that we were having friends over for dinner on Saturday night to celebrate their engagement (yippee), I headed for the Morcombe Bay fish stall. I explained to the lovely fishmonger what I wanted to cook and he recommended Scottish hake, promptly disappeared into his walk-in fridge and emerged with a huge, glistening fish. A few deftly applied blows of a cleaver ensued and I was presented with two beautiful fillets with a silvery, pinkish skin that shimmered in the light. I was also offered the head which I declined to which it was plonked onto a waiting spike to either ward off or to entice my fellow shoppers. I couldn't quite decide which.

Last weekend in Vienna I ate a delicious salad of green and white asparagus with strawberries and a balsamic dressing, in which, unfortunately the ingredients swam. Seeing both kinds of the veg nestled side by side on a stall, I whisked them up and decided to replicate the dish as a starter at home. The greengrocer insisted that the Dutch white asparagus was not grown in banks and that is was 'just white' naturally - hmmm. My research begs to differ but who am I to argue with a chap in the know?

One jar of wonderful gooseberry and elderflower jam for an afternoon cake and a bunch of end of season of rhubarb and I was good to go. The makings of a three course meal were in my bags - let the cooking commence.

Roast Hake with Salsa Verde (serves 4)
leaves from a handful of flat-leaf parsley
leaves of a spring of mint
2 tbsp capers
3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained
2 cloves of garlic
2 large vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into eight slices
bunch thyme (the lemon variety is great if you can get it)
olive oil
white wine
2 fillets hake approx 500-600g each (salmon works equally well as does cod)

Heat oven to 220C/gas 7. To make the salsa verde roughly chop the first four ingredients with one of the garlic cloves and then give them a good pounding in a pestle and mortar with a good grinding of black pepper.
Line the base of a roasting tin with baking parchment and lay the tomato slices in four lines across the base of the tine. Slice the remaining garlic clove and scatter over the tomato along with most of the thyme sprigs (save one). Sprinkle over approx 1tbsp oil and a glug of wine - this prevents the fish from sticking and produces a wonderfully fragrant sauce.
Brush the skin-side of one hake fillet with oil and place, skin-down, on the tomatoes. Cover with the salsa then top with the other hake fillet, flesh side down. Rub a little oil into the skin, season and sprinkle with the leaves from the remaining thyme sprig.
Roast for 20-25 mins until cooked through. Cut the fish into slices and serve with the tomatoes and spoonfuls of the sauce.

J turned the asparagus into a delicious (and in my opinion far superior) version of that which we ate in Austria - simple, elegant and seasonal with a delicate dressing of balsamic and oil which complemented the sweetness of the strawberries whilst not overpowering the asparagus.

And the rhubarb?

Rhubarb and Orange Cake (from a Waitrose recipe card)
400g rhubarb, washed and cut into 2cm pieces
200g golden caster sugar
150g butter, softened
2 eggs, lightly beaten
75g self-raising flour, sifted
1/2tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds
grated zest of one orange plus 2tbsp juice
30g flaked almonds

Preheat oven to 190C/gas 5. Grease an eight inch springform round cake tin and line.
Place the rhubarb in a bowl and cover with 50g of the sugar and leave for a minimum of 30mins.
Cream the remaining sugar with the butter and incorporate the eggs and flour, a little of each at a time to avoid curdling. Fold in the ground almonds and baking powder and then stir in the orange zest and juice.
Add the rhubarb and its sugary juice to the cake mix and pour into the waiting cake tin. Sprinkle over the flaked almonds, put the tin on a baking tray and bake in the middle of the oven for 25mins.
Reduce the temperature to 180C/gas 4 and cook for another 20-25 minutes or until firm. Allow to cool in the tine for 10 mins.

We served with double cream which J so cruelly, but expertly, whipped.

Gosset non-vintage champagne and Porcupine Ridge sauvingon blanc tickled our palates and helped us to celebrate both a new engagement and a new friendship.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lemon Fairies to the Rescue

The past few weeks have been something of a whirlwind in some ways, but also the creation of a mountain out of a molehill, the combined result of which has been a dirth of blogging. A weekend at home however has enabled me to breathe, relax and to create.

So far the spring has not only awoken nature but seems to have breathed life into my social life, which although is incredibly fun and interesting, is also at times exhausting. I have caught up on and cemented friendships, watched new ones develop and blossom and have spent time with family, both mine and J's. In the past month alone we have stayed in the Home Counties, Hamburg and France and ever occasion, every meeting of friends has conjured up a plethora of emotions.

I have let myself become crowded by what needn't be, but what has at times become, the 'serious' side of life; my consultancy business, the search for a house, the start of a new French class, tax returns (actually I think that anyone would find that one troubling at the best of times), the hunt for a specific outfit (how on earth can the thought of new shoes become stressful?!) and a recurrent bout of stomach problems. It sounds silly but I have not had the headspace (such a loathsome phrase and yet so accurate) to write, to relax, to cook.

Yet I am fortunate enough to have been reminded that life is too short to worry constantly and that a crowded mind can not be a creative one. And so this weekend I took a deep breath, had some fun and let the baking tins edge their way out of the cupboard.........

When asked which fancies he would like to munch on this week, J replied "fairy cakes" and so I was more than happy to oblige. Upon reflection I think that he would rather have demolished a chocolate cake or a sticky cherry confection, however J sensed that I would have more fun decorating and icing the little fairy sweeties. What a wonderful man he is. As my spirits felt lifted I decided to lighten the air with the aroma of lemons and so made these

Lemon Cupcakes (makes 12)
125 soft unsalted butter
125 caster sugar
125 self-raising sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp lemon extract (or limoncello - I'm determined to use it up!)
zest of one unwaxed lemon
1 - 1/2 tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 200C and line a 12-bun tin with paper cases.
Cream the butter with the sugar and then add by stages, a spoon of sieved flour, a spoon of egg, flour, egg etc until the ingredients have combined (doing this gradually ensures against the dreaded curdling).
Add the lemon extract and the zest. Add a little milk as necessary for a flowing texture - so that it drops easily from the mixing spoon when tapped.
Spoon evenly into the paper cases.
Bake in the middle of the oven for up to 20 minutes or golden brown in colour and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and transfer onto a wire rack as soon as they have cooled sufficiently to the touch.

Easy! Then have enormous fun decorating them with whatever silly fripperies you have to hand. I can never resist the urge to make baby pink, soft blue and white icing and to use a mixture of hundreds and thousands (J's favourite), crystallised violet sprinkles and sugar flowers.

Three Little Words

Words are possibly the most powerful of all ammunition in the human nelson. They have the power to raise spirits, to elevate expectations, to inspire love, to create a whirlwind of desire and yet conversely they also have the ability to prick one's bubbling joy, to wound, to harm and to instill deep sadness.

Extraordinarily the same words in the English language can create entirely different emotions when used in differing contexts. Within the space of two days, the words "I miss you" were uttered to me. The first was a sign of warmth, of a burgeoning friendship borne from a love, shared interest in and passion for food. I felt honoured and full of joy to be lucky enough to have been missed.

The second however made me feel wretched, deeply saddened, momentarily angry and ashamed. Ashamed that this wonderful person's deep love for me had caused them pain; that I had neglected them in what can I can only think is a strange bid for independence. And yet ultimately I feel incredibly fortunate to be so cherished.

And yet how interesting that three little words created such a maelstrom of emotions. I am left wondering if this is why I sometimes choose to express love and affection through cooking. Why I would rather bake a cake or cook a meal than risk my words being heard with a different meaning than which they were offered. Surely it is difficult to misinterpret the whipping up of a meringue; hard to be upset by the smell of a casserole as it develops in the oven; difficult to be angered by biting into one's favourite lemon cake?

The language of food. A dictionary with a limited subtext and one of which I am increasingly fond.