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.
You might have noticed we’ve been busy lately. Bathroom-building. Time-consuming lunch-time cooking doesn’t fit well with such industriousness. I’ll often have a pot of soup on the stove, but the other day, a lunchtime treat from our days in England suddenly popped into my head.
I think I read this recipe back in the 70’s, in an early example of the genre where famous people were invited to submit a recipe for a book raising funds for a charity. I’ve just remembered what it was: ‘The Shelter Cookery Book’. Was it Roger McGough who suggested crisp sandwiches?
Anyway, Michael Ayrton said he and his wife were often too busy to make lunch. Unsurprising really. He was a painter, printmaker, sculptor and designer, broadcaster, novelist and stage and costume designer. Fascinated by the Minotaur and the maze-builder Daedalus, he created many works inspired by them. Elisabeth, his wife, was a writer and the author of several cookery books. So I suppose beans on toast just wouldn’t do.
Here’s what they came up with, as far as I can remember.
Mix grated strong cheese – cheddar is good – with a small amount of milk and softened butter. Add a bit of whatever you fancy to liven it up. Maybe mustard. Maybe a little chilli. Pile onto bread which you’ve toasted on one side only, and grill until bubbling and browned on top.
That’s it. This close cousin of Welsh Rarebit always goes down well with us on cheerless winter days. It may suit you too. And while you’re at it, you might enjoy looking at a few more of Michael Ayrton’s works.
Another set of recipes. But these two walnut cake recipes are too good not to share. The worst thing is shelling 175 grams of walnuts all at one go: but when the nuts have been foraged for free, it doesn’t seem right to complain. So I won’t.
This first one isn’t something to knock together with only half an hour to spare, but it IS very good. Thanks James Martin and the BBC Good Food website for this recipe,, which I’ve slightly simplified.
Walnut and coffee frangipane tart with candied walnuts
For the tart
500g sweet shortcrust pastry
plain flour, for dusting
110g prunes, stoned, roughly chopped, soaked in Armagnac
For the frangipane
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
4 free-range eggs
3 tbsp strong coffee, cold
175g walnuts, ground to a fine powder
For the candied walnuts
50g. caster sugar
18 walnut halves
200g cream, to serve
Roll out the sweet shortcrust pastry on a floured work surface lightly dusted with flour to a 3mm thickness.
Carefully line six x 7.5cm deep-sided tart tins with the pastry, pressing the pastry into the edges of the tin. Leave 2.5cm of pastry overhanging the edge. Leave the lined tins to rest in the fridge for 10 minutes.
Line the pastry cases with greaseproof paper and then fill with baking beans or rice. Place the tart tins onto two large baking trays and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes.
Remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans or rice, then return the tart cases to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes, or until they are pale golden-brown.
Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly. Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife.
Meanwhile, blend the prunes with a little of the Armagnac in a food processor to make a thick paste.
For the frangipane, beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, until all of the eggs have been fully incorporated into the mixture.
Fold in the coffee and ground walnuts until well combined.
When the pastry case has cooled, spread the puréed prunes across the bottom of the sweet shortcrust pastry case. Top with the walnut mixture and smooth to the edges.
Return the tart to the oven for 15-18 minutes, or until the filling has risen and is cooked through and the surface is pale golden-brown. (The filling is cooked through when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.)
Meanwhile, for the candied walnuts, place the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Add the walnuts and cook for a couple of minutes, or until just tender.
Drain and place onto a large sheet of greaseproof paper.
Carefully add the candied walnuts to the oil and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until just golden-brown.
Lift out and drain on a fresh sheet of greaseproof paper. Leave until cool.
To serve, place each tart in the centre of a small plate and top with a few candied walnuts. Finish with a dollop of cream.
Michel up the road gave me this recipe. It’s a nicely moist cake which keeps and freezes well.
Walnut cake Amafaçon (my way)
180g. finely ground walnuts
30g. SR flour
120g. caster sugar
½ glass walnut liqueur, rum, or alcohol of choice
Pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 200°C
Mix half the sugar with the ground walnuts.
Mix the remaining sugar with the softened butter and add the walnut mixture.
Add 2 whole eggs one by one, and 2 yolks, one by one. Mix well then add salt, flour, cornflour and liqueur.
Beat the 2 egg whites to soft peaks, and fold into the cake mixture.
Pour into a well-greased 22cm cake tin and bake for 35 minutes at 200°C . The cake’s cooked through when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
For a 24 cm. cake tin, bake for 50 minutes at 180°C.
Serve it just as it is, or if you’d like something more elegant,
ice with a strong coffee icing or
decorate with caramelised walnut kernels and a caramel sauce made with 150g. sugar caramelised in a thick-bottomed saucepan to which you add 30 g. of salted butter and 50ml. single cream.
Hallowe’en. Pumpkin season. Every fruit and veg stall in the markets here will have red kuri, ‘le butternut’, or acorn squash at the very least, and there are those dedicated to selling nothing but the rich variety of squash, pumpkin and gourd you can grow here. Kalba gave me this butternut squash some 3 weeks ago, grown in their own garden.
It weighs in at more than 7 kilos. More than a stone! We’ve been chomping our way through it, but see how much remains. What’s worse: Malcolm has just owned up to not caring for pumpkin very much. How could he not like it? That comforting sweetness works so well with the saltiness of bacon, the heat and colour of chillies and oriental spices, or the fatty unctuousness of cheap cuts of meat and sausages. Well, his loss. Here are two of my current favourite dishes, both courtesy of Nigel Slater, from Tender, Volume 1, you may not be surprised to hear.
Nigel says this is for a cold night. Well, it is. But it’s also a fine thing to dish up on a hot day after a gruelling few hours physical labour. It looks complicated, but it isn’t. Take a deep breath and read it slowly: tackle the pumpkin, then the spice paste; the rest just falls into place.
350g. pumpkin, unskinned
coriander and mint leaves to finish.
For the spice paste:
red bird’s eye chillies, 3-4
garlic- 2 cloves
ginger, a thumb sized lump
lemongrass, 2 plump stalks
coriander roots, 5 or 6 coriander leaves, a handful
sesame oil, 2 tablespoons
For the soup:
chicken or vegetable stock, 600ml
coconut milk, 400ml
nam pla (thai fish sauce), 2 tablespoons
tamari, 1-2 tablespoons, to taste
the juice of a lime
100g dried noodles, cooked as per packet and drained.
Peel and seed the pumpkin and cut the flesh into large chunks. Cook in a steamer or a metal colander balanced over a pan of boiling water until tender. remove from the heat.
For the spice paste, remove the stalks from the chillies, peel the garlic, peel and roughly chop the ginger and lemongrass. Put them all into a food processor with the coriander roots and leaves and sesame oil and blitz until you have a rough paste.
Get a large, deep pan hot and add the spice paste. Fry for a minute, then stir in the stock and the coconut milk and bring to the boil. Allow to simmer for seven to ten minutes, then stir in the nam pla, tamari, lime juice, pumpkin and the cooked and drained noodles. Simmer briefly, add the coriander and mint noodles over the top, and serve in deep bowls.
And now for something completely different…..
Pumpkin and Apple fry-up:
either to accompany a meaty supper, or as a main dish in its own right.
a little butter
80g. fatty bacon
650g. pumpkin flesh
400g. apples (Nigel says a desert variety. Mine were very tart, and I thought all the better for it)
caraway seeds, a pinch
Melt a slice of butter in a shallow pan, cut the bacon into short strips and let them colour lightly in the butter.
Peel and roughly chop the onion, add to the pan and allow to cook with the bacon until translucent but not browned.
Cut the pumpkin flesh into manageable pieces and add to the pan, turning from time to time till golden in patches and almost tender.
Core and roughly chop the apples, but don’t peel them. Stir them into the pan and leave to putter gently until they are on the verge of collapse. Avoid stirring too much, which is likely to mash the softening pumpkin.
Finely grate the zest from the lemon and add it to the pan with the juice, the caraway seeds and a little salt.
PS. Some of you have been asking about Danger Mouse. Well. He’s not a mouse – too big, too cuddly. He’s not a hamster, as we at one point thought. Long tail. He’s not a dormouse. Wrong sort of tail. And he’s not a rat. Too small, too cuddly. However, he’s continuing to be part of life here. He rises at about 8.30 p.m. and organises his furniture behind the skirting boards, shoving stuff about quite noisily. Then he knocks off and has a nap till we’ve gone to bed. During the night he dismantles the latest humane trap, and eats the bait. In the small hours he may come and scurry round the floorboards under the bedroom. Then he goes to bed until the next night. If he ever goes, I think I shall miss him.