That was Malcolm, three-quarters of an hour ago, while we were just mopping up the last creamy, lemony, chilli-ish morsels from our pasta bowls.
It wasn’t a day when I’d given much thought to cooking. All sorts of domestic tasks, boring but necessary, followed by my currently – slightly obsessive – daily attention to learning Spanish. Our landlords popped round, and a couple of glasses of wine later, there we were, quarter to eight and nothing on the stove.
Except I’d remembered glancing at this recipe in some idle moment the other day, spotted on the BBC Good Food website
No kale? I have spring greens. No anchovies? I have bacon. And gran padano and mascarpone and lemons and nutmeg and chilli – and the all-important pasta. Twenty five minutes later, we were sitting down enjoying our meal.
And it’s a meal for when you don’t feel like a long session at the stove, but need something comforting yet with light and bright flavours. Oh, and dear veggie friends. You could easily leave out the bacon or anchovies.
Epiphany, 6th January. Today’s the day when here in France we’re supposed to eat Galette des Rois – Kings’ Cake, because this is the day when, according to tradition, the three kings arrived to visit the baby Jesus.
When I went down to the baker’s this morning, I found there were two sorts on offer. Should I chose the yeasted brioche style more popular down here? Or should I go for the layers of puff pastry filled with almond cream? I couldn’t help thinking that Madame was nudging me towards the puff-pastry option, and that suited me fine.
As you share it out, one of you will find yourself with a fève in your portion. This used to be a bean, but these days it’s usually a little china trinket. And there he was, in the very first slice I had on my plate, a little yellow-uniformed fellow on a plinth inscribed ‘le pompier japonais’ – the Japanese fireman. Lucky me. I got to wear the cardboard golden crown supplied at the baker’s and proclaimed myself King For The Day. Which was fine as far as it went. I’m still waiting to be dressed in fine robes and whisked off in a sparkling limousine to some red carpet event. It’s getting on for bedtime, and so far…. nothing.
I did get to commune with a kitchen full of odds and ends however. I found half a stale ‘bio’ baguette, and half a Livarot cheese that was uncharacteristically disappointing from the very first mouthful. Though it wouldn’t find a place on the menu of any Royal banquet, I decided on a version of an austerity dish that’s always popular in this house.
Savoury bread and butter pudding
Butter the base of a shallowish baking dish
Cut and butter thick slices from a baguette or other loaf . I usually find 2 slices per person is enough.
Grate or slice some cheese you’re trying to get rid of and use it to top the bread and butter. Usually I use a hard cheese like cheddar, but the Livarot worked just fine .
Arrange in the bottom of the baking dish.
Beat together 2 eggs, about 150 ml. milk, or milk and cream, or milk and plain yoghurt (this really is about emptying out your cupboards and the fridge), and season. Today I added a teaspoonful of grainy mustard and a handful of chopped parsley, but it could have been chopped chives, chopped chilli, some crisply fried bacon pieces…..
Pour the eggy milk over the bread and cheese and – this is important – leave for at least half an hour for the bread to absorb the liquid.
Bake in a hot oven (170 degrees fan oven) for about half an hour till puffy, risen, and with a rich golden crust. Eat immediately, with an astringent salad of bitter leaves to counteract the richness of the dish.
Actually, it’s not remotely sophisticated, but I don’t think those three kings would have turned up their noses at this meal after all those days and nights trekking across the desert to find a baby in a stable. But we still have a slice or two of Galette des Rois if they’d prefer.
Those cauliflowers with their crisp, bright creamy curds look so enticing on the market stall at this time of year. They beg to be bought and transformed into something both appetising and full of goodness.
So often they disappoint . That bright white face displayed among all the cheery autumn colours of carrots and pumpkins, and the deep forest green of spinach and cabbage turns a sullen shade of oatmeal the second it’s introduced to a pan of boiling water. Leave it there a moment too long and it’s watery, tasteless and almost slimy.
But there are recipes in which it shines. On a miserable winter’s day after a few hours out in the cold, you can’t beat a plateful of good old cauliflower cheese made with lots of decent sharp-flavoured cheddar. You can get away with Cantal Entre Deux, but not the ready-grated Emmenthal that seems to be the default cooking cheese round here.
My next favourite is Rose Elliot‘s cashew nut korma – very mild indeed as far as curries go, but tasty and more-ish. I’ll adapt the vegetables to what I have in the house, but I’m always sure to include cauliflower. It’s a recipe I try to make a day ahead, because that way, the ingredients sit together in the pan and get very well acquainted overnight. By the time we eat them, they’ve become good and harmonious friends. And I get to use two of the chillies I’ve been carefully growing all summer.
There’s a bit of a theme emerging here: it’s all about comfort food. Perhaps because this week’s been unremittingly horrible. It’s rained and rained, the wind has blown, and then it’s rained some more. A fresh crunchy salad involving fine slices of cauliflower, enlivened by finely chopped herbs and a bright dressing simply wouldn’t hit the spot. Here’s the last suggestion, from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume one.
A mildly spiced supper of cauliflower and potatoes
3 large onions
4 cloves garlic
Ginger: a thumb-sized lump
1 tbsp. ground coriander-a tablespoon
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 tomatoes (or 1/2 tin)
600 ml. water
3 medium potatoes
a large cauliflower
Handful unroasted cashew nuts
6 green cardamom pods
1 tbsp. garam masala-a tablespoon
150- 200 ml. crème fraîche
coriander-a small bunch
Peel the onions, chop one of them roughly, then let it soften with a tablespoon or two of oil in a deep pan over a moderate heat.
Halve and thinly slice the others and set aside. peel the garlic cloves, slice them thinly then stir into the softening onion. Continue cooking, without browning either the onion or the garlic.
Grate the ginger. These days I freeze ginger when I buy it, and grate from frozen. It’s so easy to deal with this way. Add to the onion and garlic.
Stir the ground coriander, cumin, cayenne and turmeric into the onion. Let them fry for a minute or two, then roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan.
Add the water and bring to the boil.
Season with salt and a generous grind of black pepper.
Cut the potatoes into large pieces (as if for boiling) and add them to the pan. lower the heat and leave to simmer for fifteen minutes before breaking the cauliflower into florets and adding to the sauce.
Quickly toast the cashew nuts in a small non-stick frying pan until golden, tip them into the pot, cover with a lid and continue to simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes.
Meanwhile, fry the reserved onions in a little oil in a shallow pan till deep, nutty gold.
Whilst they are cooking, crack the cardamom pods, scrape out the seeds, crush lightly and add to the onions.
Continue cooking for five minutes or so, then, when all is gold and fragrant, remove and place on kitchen paper.
When the cauliflower and potatoes are tender to the point of a knife, stir in the garam masala (the spices in it are already roasted, so it needs very little cooking) and the crème fraîche. Simmer for a minute, then serve topped with the reserved onions and the roughly chopped or torn coriander leaves.
… which are, being translated, sloes, rosehips and mushrooms. But it sounds rather more poetic in French, non? Even if you take into account that ‘gratte-cul‘ translates as ‘scratch-bum‘, because as every naughty school child knows, rosehips seeds are distressingly itchy when shoved down against the skin.
Anyway, I went off by myself for a walk the other day, starting by the ancient and slightly isolated Chapelle Saint Roch. There’s still a pilgrimage there every year, because he’s the patron saint of plague victims, and well, you never know, do you?
I’d got several ‘au casoù‘ bags, ‘just in case’ I found sloes, rosehips and mushrooms. It wasn’t ‘just in case’ really though. I know exactly where to look for the juiciest sloes, the thorniest rosehips, and even a decent clutch of field mushrooms. Finding mushrooms before the French get to them counts as a real achievement for me.
Here are my sloes, destined not for sloe gin this year: we seem to have such a lot left from the last few years. No, this year I’m making a richly flavoured jelly with the fruit I picked that morning and a few windfalls.
And here are the rosehips. It’s a syrup for those, I think.
But the mushrooms…… Someone got there before me. And it wasn’t a Frenchman . Grrr.
Our village shop has a daily battle on its hands to keep itself in our hearts and minds as we plan our weekly shopping. With three supermarkets (two of them offering ‘le hard discount’) within two miles, it’s all uphill.
Dominique and Joel, the owners, have three types of customer: the old faithfuls who buy all their groceries there. There are so few of these that if one of them goes on holiday, or worse, dies (I did say old faithfuls), it makes quite a difference. There are those of us who shop a fair bit there, and make a conscious decision to do so, to keep the shop in business as an asset for the whole community. And there’s the passing trade, and those who only go if they’ve forgotten the matches, or fancy a tub of ice-cream just before closing time.
So they encourage local producers, offer delivery, open earlier and later than the supermarkets (though they have a long break at midday) and are constantly on the look-out to stay noticed.
One of their winning ideas, though, is to supply fresh fish on one day a week. You’re as well to get yourself there in good time on Wednesday, or it’ll all be gone. Every week, there’ll be a choice of two varieties. And last week, the choice was a fairly unusual one for this part of the world: mackerel, my favourite. Inspired by various ideas from BBC Good Food, though owing allegiance to none in particular, this is the speedy no-nonsense meal I came up with.
Grilled sweet soy mackerel
4 mackerel fillets
zest and juice of 1 lime, or 1 lemon
1 tbspn. rapeseed oil
Noodles, as required
For the sauce
2 tbspn. soy sauce
1 red chilli, deseeded and cut into matchsticks
Juice 1 lime or lemon
Thumb sized piece of ginger, finely grated
2 tbspn. muscovado sugar
2 tbspn. water
Score the mackerel fillets a couple of times on the skin, then lay them in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with the lime or lemon zest and juice, and leave to marinate for 5-10 mins.
Place all of the sauce ingredients in a small pan and gradually bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 mins to thicken slightly, then remove from the heat and set aside.
Turn the grill to its highest setting and place the mackerel on a greased baking tray, skin side up. Sprinkle the fillets with the oil and some sea salt, then grill for 5 mins until the flesh is opaque and cooked through.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles.
To serve: divide noodles between shallow bowls, top with mackerel fillets, and drizzle the soy sauce mixture over the top
I knew it would end in tears. I should have listened to Nigel.
Malcolm’s favourite cake in all the world is coffee and walnut cake. So why not indulge him for his birthday? I made one a while back, and it was just as it should have been – rich and indulgent, with a moist crumb, but not too sickly sweet. How could I have forgotten that it was Nigel who delivered, as he invariably does, the Tips That Matter? I turned to another book, a BBC book for heaven’s sake, which is normally pretty reliable. My instincts told me it was wrong. The size of tin relative to the mixture, the heat of the oven – everything. But I decided to go for it in every particular: you don’t argue with the Beeb.
And of course I shouldn’t have done. The two layers were too thin to rise into a satisying mound of comforting coffee-infused sponge, the quantity of icing advised would have filled and decorated enough cakes to fill the WI stall at the farmer’s market. I was unimpressed. Malcolm’s being too polite to say so, but he did venture to point out that Nigel is King in this house, and his recipes should always be first port of call.
Here’s his recipe. I’ve just this minute compared it with the one I made. And would you believe, the two are all but identical? Extraordinary. Jut reading a recipe by Nigel seems to make it succeed.
It’s rare for me to follow recipes to the letter. Like Nigel Slater, I tend to adapt, substitute, tinker. So what I’ve learnt from this is that instincts are there to be heeded. If a recipe seems wrong, it probably is. For you, anyway. On that particular day, at least.