Staying put

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imageThis is tortilla, by which I mean Spanish omelette. Potatoes and onion sweated into a sticky mass and then flopped into beaten egg and then cooked at the lowest of heats until the top sort of coheres and then you flip it over and then it’s done. Better the next day. The recipe I use is by Delia. I somehow wish it wasn’t; someone less Spanish it would be hard to find. And yet it works.

We have been meaning to go on holiday. We were thinking of Mallorca, one of the Spanish Balearic islands. It’s apparently nothing like its previously sordid reputation and is actually really beautiful (and cheap if you use Norwegian Airlines and fly on a Saturday). But we didn’t go there. We flirted with Greece; Paxos, the place I visited when all I had was a few bin bags, a single bed sheet and £40. We didn’t go there in the end. Something about scrolling down a screen and picking a place at random was off-putting, as if all these places were somehow the same, Turkey, Toulouse, Lanzerote, Labia. I think by the end we didn’t know if they were countries or cities or what. And it wouldn’t really have been a holiday, more a kind of fleeing.

As if we were train robbers, when we were just waiting for our flat to become available, and needed somewhere to stay in the interim. But we became a bit heady at the idea of Europe because we haven’t had Europe for so many years; the idea of it, where you get on a plane that costs 10p and suddenly you are in Bosnia! Or you get on a train and you’re in Paris, city of dogs. A coach to World War 1! But I really missed going into a travel agent and being put into a trance. It’s not the same unless you’re frothing at the mouth and gently rocking while a lovely lady in a pink pelmet leafs through a catalogue and guides her gilded talon-shaped nails to some facts appertaining to you and your travel needs and then taps away at her keyboard for a while. The holiday always came to about £3,000 all in but it was like meditation. I always left with nothing but a few free magazines and a strange, limp smile on my face.image imageSo we didn’t go away. Instead, I decided to photograph conkers against a hessian background and throw away my hideous shoes. I bought a new pair from Clarks shoe shop, which was also a hypnotic experience. In the end I had no idea what I was buying. They’re cream leather with green laces and they look like little crimped pies. “They certainly make a statement!” the assistant said, while I walked up and down. Anyway, I quite like them. And we have just left LA. Maybe we’re not ready for Europe yet. It is autumn here and everyone is going away. We’ve arrived and everyone is going. Mystified by the weather, everyone talks about it, and their colds, which are measly and mainly consist of sneezing. But there are extraordinary changes afoot here, and it’s exciting. There are storms and dangerous fissures in the chalk Downs, the sea is wild but still swimable. There’s a colony of rare kittiwakes nesting in the cliffs at Seaford. On the seafront, some kind Lithuanian fishermen handed us some mackerel, which were a startling, shiny blue with eyes like little buttons. I don’t actually know that they were Lithuanian, because I didn’t ask. It was decided that they were, through some weird process to do with their courtly manners.

I was described as ‘the lady in beige’ today. There I was draped over a plastic chair waiting to have ‘my bloods’ taken by the phlebotomist and it made me inwardly smile. And a kind chef from my favourite cafe gave me my own ramekin of Spanish almonds to go with my egg and chips. His gesture and the plate of food reminded me of the tortilla – a warm feast of piquant, oniony yellows and browns – which feels right for autumn, for rugging up in various shades of beige, for staring out to sea, and for staying put.

Englishly wonderful

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imageThis is summer pudding. Perhaps they were being ironic when they named it, because it’s made using late summer fruit; redcurrants, raspberries. A clutch of other berries perhaps if you’re feeling rebellious. But it is more a dark and winy end to summer days. Bread soaked, I want to say blooded, in the juices of just popping fruit, crunchy berries with rather drastic seeds. This thing, this glorious crimson dome, came at the end of a proper Sunday lunch. I didn’t make it, I simply watched its procession from the kitchen out into the garden to where we sat under a canopy of grapes. I think I may well have actually said all this, Dimbleby-like, as it was carried forth. I might have provided some sort of commentary.

I do this when I’m nervous. I say what’s happening, as if for the benefit of an audience. If you like Brecht, then you’d feel quite at home sitting next to me during one of these events. I say things like: “I can’t believe we’re sitting under a canopy of grapes”. Other popular expressions: “it’s such an amazing colour!” It’s basically meta theatre and it makes things more exciting, I find. And also if you don’t know what to say, you just describe your surroundings. “If in doubt, enthuse”, a friend at university once advised.

imageIt came with a small jug of the juice – “blood of Christ” – and a bowl of thick and undulating cream – “what an amazing spoon, is it ancient?” – and then there was the eating of it. “How Englishly wonderful!”, said another guest. And it was. Not too sweet, gloriously sodden, the cream a kind of lactic counterpoint. I said all this, but no one was listening. The cold of it was intoxicating.

Liz grows her own fruit in her allotment that she’s had for ages. Fruit is easier to grow than vegetables apparently – blackcurrants, redcurrants, nothing to it – though I think we had her carrots. She also made the apple and mint jelly that accompanied our lamb, and my elderflower cordial was made by her, I think, in France. If this had been me, no one would have needed to ask. I would have volunteered all this information possibly before the removal of coats. But there you go. Some people, Liz being one, have no desire to broadcast their efforts, or to write about them. The festishizing of food is not her style. imageThe trip from Chiswick to Putney had taken ages, with full and fetid tube carriages crammed with people eating enormous flapping sandwiches. We were hungry and it was cold by the time we arrived and I was wearing a dress in denial of the unrelenting autumn wind with stupid bare legs. And then there were the five years of no one we knew making a Sunday roast in LA. Then there was LA, where nothing was full of fat or scaldingly hot, no gravy, no sauce or large florid ears of cauliflower, no chunks of melting lamb, or red-stained lips and purple tongues or waves of cream. I was unprepared for the Englishly wonderful aspect of it all.

And I was also reminded of being in England before when I was much younger and the odd thing about Sundays, the melancholy aspect to them; that they were always the end of something that hadn’t quite begun. But more than anything, this meal was served with complete knowledge of what a traditional Sunday lunch should be. And we were coming to it as you might after a long absence. It was all a bit of a shock. We left at 5 o’clock and then talked about it for days. We tried to nail down the pudding, what it was that made it so good. Perhaps more than anything it was that this went on. It was the routineness of it, and next year all being well at around the same time if we’re in the vicinity and we don’t get lost, we’ll try it again. Summer pudding, late. With whatever berries you have, and more if you’re feeling rebellious.

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The classic summer pudding has only redcurrants and raspberries, but this pudding also had blackcurrants and in fact are a popular addition generally; they add a bit of clout and deep colour. This is Nigel Slater’s recipe, which follows the classic one expounded by Jane Grigson and the like. Spoon over any extra juice which will add drama and will possibly garner you a round of applause. Or pour the juice into a jug to serve along with some thick cream with a preferably ancient spoon.

2nd October – Liz’s thoughts on her summer pudding via email

“So glad you enjoyed the summer pudding! I regret to say, it wasn’t really according to a recipe, although I started with an Elizabeth David one and then adapted it as I went along…. I think it is crucial to use stale white bread , and E D says only use raspberries and redcurrant in a ratio of 3 to 1. The amount of sugar is optional (I think I used about a quarter of a cup) and a little water. Simmer fruit for 5 mins. At that stage I thought mine was too sweet so added blackcurrants, and then not sure there was enough fruit, so added some strawberries. As you can see, I made it up as I went along! A useful tip is to line the pudding basin with cling film before putting in the sliced bread as it makes it much easier to get out.”

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Still life

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imageThese are pears that have fallen from the tree, next door to where we are staying in Chiswick, west London. It is a temporary stop-gap and we are house sitting and cat sitting a rather somnolent cross-eyed cat, an amazing shade of fawn. In fact everything in the house is on the fawn continuum so sometimes it’s hard to spot her. She is also the same colour as the envelopes that arrive from Hounslow council. Anyway, we have been enjoying the pears, that are apparently diseased. At the end of the street is a mulberry tree, which has just been cut back but earlier in the week the pavement was festooned with them, little car crashes all over the place, splats of pink, ruby spillages. We were keen to walk around them so as not to tramp mulberry stains through the house and spoil the general atmosphere of hotel calm. Which at the moment suits our mood, when normally we would be cradling the fruit in our hands and covering ourselves in the never-ever vanishing juice. Because when could you ever resist a mulberry? Never.
imageAlthough I have been posting from England regularly since I started blogging, it was as an LA resident. I would always eventually board a plane back to LA, full up on Bach’s Rescue Remedy pastilles and sodden with days of fraught tears. This time, however, I am writing as a resident of England, because we have moved from LA and are now back on English soil. My blog posts will lack, I imagine, some of the emotional freight they once had – nostalgia for crisps and autumn, the love of a good walk etc – and I will be a bit more, well, down to earth, maybe, but hopefully not prosaic. We will be returning to LA regularly so I’m sure I’ll have some interesting tales to tell from immigration, and the warm and caring LA drivers and those women with faces made of brown candle wax.
imageIn the meantime, I have turned the beam of my affection to those things that are difficult to find here – the type of sun and light in LA, which is almost a hard blue, all angles, and then driving, the thing that tormented me more than anything else; okay, I miss the grid system in LA. I miss grids. I miss driving in a straight line for hours at a time with no pedestrians, no people to ruin it, finding Say You Love Me on the CD player with my fingers (Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, track 11) tracing it like Braille in case the driver in front suddenly decided not to bother with indicating.

And of course I miss our neighbours, who cordially and kindly took my cakes, sometimes as many as two a day (when things were really bad) and who became our friends, and then finally our family. And all the lovely people who scooped us up and fed us and listened to my various diatribes (“Cats need to be free to express their natural instincts!” “I’m European, I refuse to wear a bra”). Sometimes I just miss the right turn out of the garage, the car tipping down the hill into the first sun of the morning, like a massive fruit in the sky, knowing it wouldn’t change, and being endlessly surprised by it.image

Here I’m not so much surprised as bemused by the amount of grown men in tailored suits eating Wotsits. Wealth, that’s a surprise, particularly here in London – it makes me want to go up to the chestnut-haired glossy mares drinking lattes in Chiswick House and ask how they did it, and could I have a look at their bank statements? I don’t remember London ever being so untouchably rich (reading John Lanchester on the subject helps). So in that sense, I’m a foreigner, but in every other way, I’m home. ‘Here nowhere else underwrites my existence’, Philip Larkin wrote in The Importance of Elsewhere. So no LA, no mad people, no Jessica Biel or citrus to beguile you with, but plenty of pears, cats, mulberries, unpacking and, when in London, extortion. It’ll be an interesting few months, thank you for following me.

Black and blue

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016Yesterday we went walking and found these blackberries, the red picked as an enticement to the black ones to gel. I made a rather flouncy-sounding mûrée with them – a kind of jam but without the staggering amount of sugar. ‘Serve it tepid with a grainy cake,’ is Jane Grigson’s rather dowdy instruction, though I found the marriage of mûrée and yoghurt far more appealing. You can keep the jam in the fridge and be none the wiser. There are umpteen blackberry recipes around, and so it is easy to feel overpowered and then give up, eat them in a desultory way and stain your breathable ‘windproof’ pockets into the bargain. Your hands will also look as if they have been attacked by a feral dog.

But this, I have discovered, is part of the joy. Because there are also windfall apples to be scooped up. And elderberries and rosehips in the hedges, and some sweet little weedy chamomile that we picked and a couple of plump and bruised-looking figs. All foraged (or nicked depending on who you ask).030This is what happens when you leave the Metropolis; things can get a bit wild. On Sunday, we took a path that was familiar to us, walking from Berwick church, stopping to admire the clear windows and the stillness inside and the murals by Vanessa Bell, the sculptural bird bath, and then into fields of corn, the wind looping around us and whipping the trees into a frenzy (‘I hate trees. They’re so noisy!’ I once heard a woman say to her friend on the bus). This bit we knew, but then the trail we normally took was overgrown, with watery mud underfoot and a dead crow, and then a scratchy tunnel of blackberries. We picked the purple bulbous ones and tied them up handkerchief-style in the left over clingfilm from mum’s sandwich. The rest were burrowed deep into pockets, leeching out like blood onto our hands.

And then suddenly there was no more trail and no stile. It was odd, as if it had just disappeared or we had remembered it wrongly, which we hadn’t. And then came the rain, big splodges of it, and we stood there with instant wet feet, socks like sopping flannels and wondered what to do, repeatedly going up to the barbed wire fence as if it would become something else. Finally we climbed over it, our trousers and socks snagging on the wires, sparking rivulets of blood and a torrent of swearing, and then we traipsed over the Downs to Alfriston to a warm and steamy tea room, and I felt like a character in a Barbara Pym novel – Connie Aspinal to my mother’s Edith Liversidge on our way to bag a curate –  our wet things hurled in front of the cake counter so that the lovely young (slightly frightened) waitress had a job getting to the Millionaire’s shortbread.031Actually she was only frightened for a bit, and then she dealt with us in the manner of a woman running a hospital in wartime; calm, efficient, professionally wary? Then as we went from oolong to rooibos back to English breakfast, from two scones to one and then realized we couldn’t actually pay because we had brought the wrong debit card, she gave up and became herself and we chatted about life generally, her horrible time at school, her love of drama (really? I wanted to say) and English literature and being bullied for years and now being friends with her tormentors. And then we paid with something (my Oyster card, I think) and ran headlong into the bus that had already left its stop but was the very last one and if we missed it I think we would have drowned each other. I didn’t have my ticket because it had disintegrated in the rain but the driver simply nodded me to a seat and we trundled over the Downs back to Seaford completely exhausted. And people think LA is wild.

La Mûrée

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

I can imagine this swirled through Bircher muesli. It is delicious with cream as a kind of fool or as the fruit component in a crostata. It is endlessly versatile and you can also use gluten-free flour. Honestly, I never measure anything but throw it all in and hope for the best, but the measurements are here for safety (and because sometimes mine tastes like papier mache if I’m a bit free form with the flour)

1 lb (½ kg) of blackberries
Sugar to taste (Jane Grigson uses 250g/1 cup)
Juice of half a lemon
25g flour (¼ cup)

Rinse the blackberries if necessary. Put them in a pan with the sugar, the juice of the lemon and the flour. Stir for a few minutes until cooked, over a slow heat. The juices will start to run and the fruit will cook down, though it’s nice if the berries retain some of their shape. Leave to cool and then store in the fridge.

Courgette plot

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011Hard to say if this is an unusually buoyant time for courgettes or this is the norm. Everyone has a recipe, and people who profess not to be gardeners are growing courgettes and holding forth on what to stuff the blossoms with, and what size an ideal courgette should be (small). I was given a bag of courgettes by French-friend-Monique, and they were on the large side, almost marrows, though when I cooked them they didn’t become the sloppy, watery mess cooked marrows are famous for. They actually tasted of something but with big gangster-like seeds. I followed French-friend-Monique’s recipe for soup, which was so easy and lacking in peril of any kind that I kept asking her the same thing - is that it? – because being French I thought it would be difficult but taste very good in the end. Her instructions, repeated for my benefit, were to “put them in water with a stock cube and throw in some cheese triangles.”022She gave me two triangles and the soup was delicious, and the next night I put in two blobs of goat’s cheese, and I think that is the soup’s secret. I also added some ‘umami paste’ that was being sold off cheap at the supermarket because reportedly no one knew what they were buying. It is in fact a mixture of anchovy, olive, parmesan, and other dark and yeasty backnotes, but you are essentially buying flavour; a bit like buying a jar called ‘hope’ or ‘rumour’. A friend who tried it couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was she liked, the soup a tease, like the boy at school you fancied who turned out to be made of nothing, but who made your life a merry hell before you realized. A bit like that.023

But you don’t want a recipe for soup. And it’s hardly, barely a recipe at that (I did in fact, unbeknownst to Monique, sweat the courgettes in some butter and olive oil with some garlic before adding the water, cooking it gently for 20 minutes and then whizzing in a blender with the soft cheese, because I couldn’t bear not to, but this is the Michelin starred version).

These are courgette and potato rosti – otherwise known as patties, polpette or even, and this might just be in my house, rissoles – and they came by way of a rather recalcitrant man in a tight vest who was weeding his plot in a walled garden I happened to be in the other day. The walled garden was spectacular; full of tall wavy bolting lettuces that made me think of Rapunzel, wigwams of fussy frilly sweet peas with their butterfly flowers, darkly mottled pears against one wall and espaliered plums on the other, covered in netting, which somehow made me think of bras. In the middle was this man, bending to fill his trug with slim purple beans. At first he seemed friendly. “We’re just admiring the garden,” we said by way of introduction, because it was in fact private property, in the grounds of an old house, a retreat of sorts, but the gate had been open and so we had sidled in. “Of course, yeah,” he said and started to peel the drying sheafs off his corn cobs. “I like your courgettes,” I said because we were standing right by a strange serpent-like mass of them blooming up from the ground; blossoms yellow as butter reached out from the sides, and yellow and green snakes of the vegetable slithered over the ground.029

“Yeah,” he said, or something like that. And I told him about my marrow-like courgettes from French-friend-Monique, and he said big was bad and did we have an allotment? No, no garden, mum said. No garden since 1976. That’s why she loved coming here, she was thinking of asking if there was a plot to spare. And then we started talking about what we could do with the courgettes, and he reeled off a list while he threw his corn into the trug and carried on peeling away at the next cob – “there’s courgette bread, courgette cake, courgette rosti, courgette soup, sweat them down with a bit of oil and garlic etc.” – and as he went on I decided I didn’t like him. It was just a feeling. If this had been Monique she would have slipped us a few courgettes and thrust the blossoms in a bag with a flap of her hands as if it hadn’t happened. Not because I was expecting him to – but because I knew he was the kind of person who wouldn’t. “It was nice to meet you, enjoy your harvesting,” I said and moved away. He bent over his trug and threw in the corn with another, bleaker, “Yeah”.

And as we left we saw, right by the mottled pears, a trench of unused, overgrown spartan earth; a plot. That gave us ideas. Which we kept to ourselves until we left the grounds. And then we schemed and schemed and schemed away.

Courgette and potato rosti 

Adapted from Mark Hix, the Independent

The idea with rosti is to grate cooked potato with – in this case – raw courgette and then fry in a little olive oil and butter until it looks like a golden haystack. I was taken aback by the sheer amount of juice the courgette extruded. I dealt with this by squeezing the (considerable) liquid out of the grated courgette using a tea towel before adding it to the potato. The rosti were light and subtle, grassy-green and fresh-tasting and I found dusting them lightly in flour before frying helped counteract the dampness. I ate mine with horseradish and a poached egg.

Serves 4

200-250g waxy new potatoes, boiled in skin, cooled then grated

1 large or 2 small courgettes

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely chopped

flour

2-3 tbs vegetable oil for frying

A couple of good knobs of butter

Grate the unpeeled courgettes using a cheese grater or something similar and then squeeze out the liquid through a clean tea towel. Add the grated courgette to the cooled and grated – and unskinned – potato. Mix well and season. I add the garlic here; I know this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I think it adds to the heady freshness. Heat a non-stick blini or frying pan with a glug of oil. Add balls of the courgette and potato mixture dipped in flour to the pan once the oil is shimmering, press the mixture down a little with a spatula and cook for about 2-3 minutes until brown and crisp. Flip them over and add a little butter to the pan and cook for a similar amount of time. Serve with a poached or fried egg and a dollop of horseradish.

Pudding with goosegogs

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2014-07-19 08.09.49-1These are red gooseberries, in case you were wondering. I didn’t realize that gooseberries could be anything but green, but here, as in many areas of my life, I am wrong. Red, yellow and white can be the goosegog, though Jane Grigson argues that none are as good in cooking as the green. These red ones were also on the small side, but I was too excited by the colour to do anything but shovel them up in my palsied hands and throw them into the nearest paper bag. If you are English and have once seen a hedge or climbed a tree, you have also probably eaten a green gooseberry raw. It comes with a certain feral spirit and being too young not to be able to discern what is and isn’t ‘palate appropriate’ (just made that up). I do remember picking gooseberries (along with elderflowers to which they have an affinity) and sampling the hairy little pod, being slightly put off by the veins, but somehow knowing I couldn’t not eat it. I was bemused by the elderflower picking, as it was for the making of wine, bottles of which would be stacked outside my bedroom window to ferment and mature etc but be still off limits to me. However, the gooseberries would at some point make their way under a crumble or pie crust and then be served with cream or possibly ice cream. I even liked the sourness, that puckering beyond-lemon tartness, and the errant seeds that could be shot out like a catapult.goosegogsAll of this under an intermittently blazing and then thunderous English sky. Because I am now back in England, back in time for the thunder and lightning and wild seas and bursts of heat and ladybirds. It’s all gone a bit Brazil here, with long languorous days, at times humid and ‘close’, then cloudy, then bucketing down, then warm, blank skies of blue. People swim with an abandon I find worrying. Far far out to sea I can see a lone swimmer doing front crawl out beyond the buoy. Children dive in, and sometimes they’re naked; another signifier I’m no longer in LA. I’m walking again and so is everyone else. We are all striding out, wading through fields of old rape and thick stiff wheat. Everyone is eating ice cream – big swathes of white – and everywhere there are bodies in various stages of rotundity; tattooed, jolly, in love, or sullen with a fag on, and I find I’m watching them with the tutored eye of an Angeleno. I’ve become aware of size and shape, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Suddenly I’m shallow. I’ve come back just in time.mum and wheatBut in the meantime there’s cake, or more specifically baked gooseberry pudding using a genoise sponge. All I previously knew about the genoise was that it was ‘difficult’ and a finalist from The Great British Bake Off dropped his all over the floor and was forced to scrape it back on to the plate, presenting it as a strange cloud of something dark with cream (I don’t think he won). I made the gooseberry pudding to bring to a party, which served as an object lesson in what you shouldn’t do if you can avoid it: make something you’ve never made before for people you barely know. It looked fine, beautifully brown in that natural way of burnt fields, and it smelled voluptuously puddingy. The gooseberries had risen up in revolt of being smothered and had formed a rim of sweet tacky juice. We walked along the seafront in Seaford to the party, and the Pyrex dish kept itself cleverly hot all the way. And then the top collapsed – not in the way a flourless cake slumps – this caved in, in the way meringue does. It simply all disappeared down a hole. I grabbed what was down there and it was lovely and hot and gungy, and, I thought, terrifyingly uncooked. I then started to pick at it, until there was an undeniable gaping hole in the centre of the pudding which was now unpresentable. ‘It’s the gesture that matters,’ my mother said, reassuringly, which translated into British English means “This is a complete disaster and no one will say anything”.cakeBy the time we got there, people were peeling off to swim, taking advantage of the sudden heat and sun, and all around us were half-demolished cakes, a gammon ripped to shreds, bowls of depleted food, and children dancing in that deranged way that happens just before an emotional collapse. My empty cake did not look out of place, and by the time everyone had trailed back from the sea, under a blanket of rain, it appeared to be cooked. It’s rather like meringue in that way, I realize; a crisp outer crust, followed by a hole and then a deep drift of softness below. Actually it’s pudding – that is what it is. Everyone said ‘Wow!’ a lot, but they were also quite drunk. They talked at length about the sweetness, the miraculous crust, and the tartness of the gooseberries. And that I had made a cake at all, and who was I again? And would I like to come to Faversham? Did I want curry? More Steely Dan! the children cried and they danced red and sweating under the raindrops.

Baked Gooseberry Pudding

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

I didn’t find the genoise sponge particularly tricky to make, though this might have something to do with my mother’s ancient Chefette free-standing mixer which whisked the eggs and sugar to buggery while I got on with reading the recipe. However, how difficult can it be to stand for seven minutes holding some beaters? This has quickly become my stand-by pudding and is also wonderful with rhubarb – in both cases the fruit can be chucked in raw with the barest tumble in brown sugar. You could use any sharp fruit here – cranberries also work well.

For the sponge
125g butter, plus a bit extra for buttering the bowl
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk (room temp)
175g unrefined caster sugar
100g plain flour, sifted (or g/f)
½ teaspoon of mace and/or allspice
½ tsp sea salt

For the gooseberries
250-300g gooseberries (they do cook down)
25g-50g demerara sugar or any soft brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 160-170C/325F. Generously butter a Pyrex dish of about 1 litre capacity and 3-4 cm depth. Put in a tight-fitting layer of topped and tailed gooseberries and throw the sugar over them, tumbling them about to get full coverage. Gently melt the butter in a pan and leave to cool slightly. Now for the sponge – the ‘trick’ is to aerate the eggs and sugar mixture, which means to whisk them together until they are very pale and light, almost white. At first they’ll be gloopy but after about 7-8 minutes the mixture will reach what is known as the ‘ribbon’ stage where it will leave a trail when the beaters are lifted out. Mix the flour, mace/allspice (actually whatever spice you fancy – ginger would be nice) and salt together in a separate bowl and then sift about half over the eggs and sugar, folding very gently using a metal spoon and working in a figure of eight. Fold in the rest of the flour very carefully, so as not to knock out any air. Now drizzle the melted butter down the sides of the bowl, again gently but quickly working the batter. Now spoon over the gooseberries, smoothing it out to be level, and then bake for about 45-50 minutes. It will rise and then crack probably. Lovely warm but also gorgeous cold. It is not – thought it will appear to be – uncooked inside.

gooseberry pudding

Tentacles

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IMG_5164You may not be of the tentacle persuasion. These are the tentacles of squid, and we peeled back the skin, disgorged the innards, threw away the eyes, and sliced the slippery white meat into rings. The tentacles we left alone, simply dragged them through flour and threw them into a bath of hot oil where they instantly froze, like the statues in Pompei. The squid is from Monterey, considered ‘local’ here, though it is over 300 miles away, going north. This is strange to me, unfathomable really, given that we can drive to the sea in 45 minutes and swim in gorgeous, crystalline water. Malibu: a place where we have witnessed the sight of three stately California grey whales breaching the surface, their wondrous grey sheen, their size silencing, so that all we could do was point open-mouthed and watch as they shot up their water for us through their blow holes (not sure if that is the technical term). And then there are the pods of dolphins, the seals that pop up nearby as you’re swimming, darkly sleek and chubby. The pelicans fly slowly in a line, quite low, as if to be menacing. I don’t know where they are going. Today we watched a man pull a ray fish from the sea, a huge flapping thing that he slipped back into the water, pushing it in the direction of the outgoing wave until it complied and disappeared. The place is teeming with life. But the fish we buy comes from Santa Barbara or beyond.

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My memories of calamari – squid cut into rings, dipped in flour and fried – are always connected with Greece, in particular Paxos and Anti-Paxos, where we sat on the beach our skin salted and burnt and in our mouths we would pop fried whitebait, calamari, crisp sardines, everything wetted by lemon juice, our lips and fingers stinging. The fish was caught in front of us. It came from the sea that we’d bathed and washed our hair in (on the days when we couldn’t afford a hotel and had to sleep on the beach). We had the luxury of local, where local meant watching a man climb out of the water and carry our lunch to the grill. Where we’d walk to the next beach to have a change of scene and escape the two men who had latched on to us from Corfu (“A couple of beers, couple of beds, couple of tokes, couple of smokes”). I was a silly, naive and broke seventeen year old travelling round Greece with forty quid and a bedsheet. Yet we lived ridiculously: Greek salad, shoals of calamari and rice-stuffed peppers, glasses of inky wine. I remember the coolness of a stairwell in the scorching August afternoon and a throttlingly cold Coca Cola. And then the emergence into Gatwick, the drizzling English rain on our leather sandals. I went with my friend Brigid, and for some reason now lost to me, we fell out and boarded separate carriages going back to London. It was a shame because we had had fun and been quite dare-devil; we flew to Corfu with an Australian man my mother had met in the street and employed to ‘butcher’ (in retrospect) our kitchen. He deserted us almost immediately and we found ourselves straggling along a highway in the mad August heat with no idea where we were going to stay. A boy of around eight found us panicking at eleven, and took us home. We walked in and were led to a room where we stayed the night and then boarded a ferry to Paxos the following day. She walked faster than me, perhaps that was it. I used to watch her hightailing it over a hill and not even bother, and when we got back to London she just carried on walking.IMG_1223

I don’t know why this story came to me when this is Monterey squid from the Pacific, and not the Ionian sea and Malibu is not for a minute Greece. I suppose there’s something of the ruggedness and people are, on the whole, brown in both places. As in weathered and salty. And the squid – it was nice to buy the squid whole and dismember it, and to see its lovely purple sheen. And I had no idea squid had eyes. I don’t remember the eyes.IMG_5138

To clean the squid, pull the head away from the body and with your fingers empty out the body cavity (which includes the ink sac – wear an apron). The cuttlebone will be in there too, transparent and flimsy – remove it. Now gently pull the wings free from the sides and slip off the purple membrane (this is fun). Rinse under running water and drain. Cut into thickish rings (about 1cm diameter). Keep the tentacles together by slicing just above the join. Remove the eyes and mouth. I keep the tentacles intact and fry them whole. The five squid above made up 1lb which was just enough for the two of us. There are those who like to soak the calamari in milk to tenderize it, and having done this once I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference. So, when you’re ready to cook, mix together equal amounts of plain flour and cornflour (cornstarch) with a pinch of sea salt. Fill a large, heavy-based pan a third full with sunflower or vegetable oil and heat. Throw in a pinch of flour and if it sizzles furiously, you’re ready to go. Drain the squid pieces well and pat dry, then drag them through the flour and shake off any excess. Fry in batches and when golden brown remove them to some kitchen paper. Sprinkle with salt and serve quickly, while they’re hot, with wedges of lemon.IMG_5167

 

Looking up

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IMG_4844We went downtown for lunch. I keep thinking of the song from Little Shop of Horrors – “Downtown, where relationships are no go! Down on skid row!” It had been about a year since our last proper visit, and though I’ve been drawn to downtown since I first started coming here, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of it. When I first got here I’d take the subway down to the Walt Disney Concert Hall – I’d get off at Civic Center and walk up the steps into this blazing steel sunlight, and make sure I never looked up. Reverse vertigo, that is apparently the term. Anyway, that part of downtown is all sheer tower blocks, mirrored and panicky, like huge razor blades cutting into the sky. So I would look either down or straight ahead, breathing in until I got to a traffic light and then latching on to someone who was also crossing the road, as if we were friends. I once did this all the way to the Central Library, (looking straight ahead without breathing, latching on) to see Alain de Botton give a talk on why Los Angeles is so badly designed and hostile to walkers. On my way back, now late at night, I felt myself being followed. By the time I got out at Hollywood & Highland I practically rushed head long into the stream of traffic, and found myself face to face with Joe’s Jeep into which I clambered, frothing my relief.IMG_4745So it’s progress that now, some years on, I can walk around downtown and look up without my feet slipping around inside my shoes. There’s another downtown that’s quite different to those corporate mirrored facades that birds crash into, believing it’s sky. We were heading towards it – to Spring Street because we wanted to visit The Last Bookstore, now housed in an old bank, and all around us were old banks, dark and gutted it seemed, no lights on, the occasional towel flung out to dry as evidence of a transient life. The banks are in the Beaux Arts style, tall and flat-faced with lots of windows and there were lots of people here too, unlike the rest of LA which is glossily empty of pedestrians (as if we ruin it or something).IMG_4928The Last Bookstore is definitely worth a visit if you like cavernous rooms bulging with books, a bank vault full of horror (stories), a tunnel made of hardbacks, another tunnel made of knitting yarn and a floor made of pennies. And seriously danceable music and crunchy leather chairs. I went in search of a place to pee and found Creperie Sans Frontiere in a little precinct that connected Spring Street and Broadway, the only place that would let me use their bathroom for free. “It’s hard to say yes and it’s hard to say no,” was the lady’s parting shot, as she gave me the key attached to an egg whisk. I took this to mean that she has to decide who she gives the key to and who to deny, and that she probably has this quandary quite often. I went back to tell Joe about it (‘Spring Street and 5th, Spring Street and 5th’) and found him with his feet up on a cracked leather pouffe in the Lit Crit section.IMG_4943The crepes (‘galettes’ here) were huge triangles, rather like elephant’s ears. They were 100% buckwheat, which the owner said she edged towards gradually, until finally flinging herself entirely at the buckwheat’s mercy. The taste is rich and earthy, nutty, almost sour. It looks like burnt black earth. You imagine it will taste of an old hat, but actually it’s lovely with maple syrup and some goat’s cheese, maybe a few pecans or a fried egg. The owner had a tower of Nutella; I imagine it would be delicious with that too. We tried to decide where we were: Paris, New York or LA, or none of the above. Or all of the above, and ourselves in amongst it. Downtown is a trip.IMG_4779When I made the crepes at home (pictured above), I made them smaller, almost like blinis, and found they were much easier to handle. Buckwheat is not wheat or even a grain, but the seed of a plant related to rhubarb (and sorrel), and it absorbs liquid much more than other flours. However, once cooked, it can take on flavours and textures well. Syrup and honey, nuts, soft cheeses, nut butters, jam, ice cream and sorbet. It’s also gluten-free and if you don’t tolerate cow’s milk (like me) then you can add a vast array of ‘milks’ to the batter. Here I used coconut milk.

Buckwheat crepes

Adapted from Arrowhead Mills & David Lebovitz 

18-20 crepes

1 1/2 cups (350 ml) whole milk (or see above)
2-3 tablespoons of maple syrup or honey
A pinch of sea salt
1 1/2 cups (175g) of organic buckwheat flour
2 large eggs lightly beaten

Put the buckwheat flour in a mixing bowl with the salt, then make a well in the middle to which you add the milk and the eggs and the honey or maple syrup. Whisk continuously to create a thick batter. Buckwheat is more absorbent than other flours, so you may need to add more milk – aim for the consistency of heavy cream. Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes – this batter does better if chilled overnight and brought back to room temperature before frying.

Heat a dab of butter or a small glug of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet or frying pan over a medium heat, and brush some of it off with a paper towel (unless you like your crepes swimming, which I profess I do). Pour about a 1/4 cup of batter (about a ladleful) into the middle of the hot pan. The buckwheat batter (in my experience of now having eaten the crepes every day for the last seven days) will not move around much but stay where it is; don’t attempt to swirl it as it’ll resist. After a minute or two, flip it over and cook for about 30 seconds. Aim for dark, blistered and crispy. Pile them up on a plate and douse with maple syrup or rest some fried eggs on them. Fried eggs go very well, oddly, with buckwheat crepes – perhaps it’s the egg’s sweetness.IMG_4938

Pause

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Yesterday I put away most of my cookery books. The majority went into boxes, which were marked ‘cookery books (keep)’. I didn’t realize objects had the collective name of ‘chotskies’ and that anything from shells to bowls to framed photos could come under this new heading. Something about seeing all these books lined up, sentry-like, on the floor gave me pause. How many cookery books do I need? Or use? The sheer bulk of them was imposing, but sitting down to read them felt like displacement, a putting off of something. I returned from England to an entire bookcase full of recipes, gathering dust, slouching in the heat, cascading one on top of the other and tried to remember when I had developed this learned helplessness in the kitchen. For years and years I think I owned three cookery books. Which I barely used. They had pencil drawings of legumes and dainty fruits, or there were close-up photos of salad and cake where everything looked vaguely menacing and shapeless.

Mostly I was drawn to implements, because during my teens and twenties I lived ad hoc, often for months at a time in such and such a place, as an au pair, as a cook in Venice, in someone’s converted garage in Rome, in a deserted flat in Peckham. I made do with what had been left behind or what I could use when the owners weren’t looking. What I could eat, how much of something I could take before it was hidden from me or labelled ‘keep out!’. The borrowed cup and saucer, the endless pilfered spoons, the bag of buns that would be tea. All those cafe and deli jobs when I lived on ham scraps and Danish pastries. Looking back it was as though I was living rough, with food just out of reach. But I was working, earning money, just not enough of it, and most of it went on rent and bills and getting to and from. Food became fodder, fuel to power me through the walk from one postcode to another.IMG_4690

When I was in my late twenties, I worked as a live-in au pair for a French couple in the London borough of Fulham, which subsidized my drama school fees. They had a three-year-old boy called Antoine and it was my job to look after him in the evenings and weekends. They had the best kitchen that I’d ever seen and the best implements. It was never made clear whether I was allowed to cook, so mostly I didn’t. I’d eat bread and butter, toast, a banana, things I could pick up surreptitiously and leave the room with; four biscuits curled into my palm, a slab of cheddar. They had a food processor. This was new to me and very exciting. I had no idea how it worked, so when they were out I’d experiment; the best thing it did was shred carrots. Mounds and mounds of desiccated carrot, damp and juicy, which I’d salt and fleck with oil and lemon. They had no cookery books and I had none either, because I was living with the bare minimum, in a small lemon-yellow room next to Antoine at the top of the house.

I made the shredded carrot every day and ate it with an upended tin of tuna. I  think that was how I never got ill. I read fiction, not Nigel or Nigella who only existed then in the margins, if I walked through a bookshop, say, or flicked through the television channels. I was never invited to cross the threshold of the French couple’s sitting room. I’d stand in the doorway and we’d have conversations, but I was never invited in. Only if Antoine saw me would he take my hand and lead me to the sofa. Sometimes, in the night he’d wake me with his cries, and though I was given instructions never to go in, I often would, and he’d be standing on the other side clutching his trucks to his chest in a way I still think about. He also gave me food, invited me to sit with him at the kitchen table, and took me into the garden. Sometimes I ate my shredded carrot with him and he’d eat his mashed apple or his sausages (and then I’d eat what he left behind). I hope he is doing well. IMG_3849

I read this book by Alain Coumont at Le Pain Quotidien in Larchmont. I resisted the urge to buy it and instead I read it. I hope the simplicity of this recipe doesn’t offend, but really it’s not a recipe, more an idea; a thought about food that you might have and decide to execute. It’s permission more than anything. And it reminded me of what I did before books told me to. When I just fed myself.

Carrot and lemon salad

Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer
4-6 carrots, peeled, julienned or finely grated
2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
3 pinches of sea salt
Black pepper

Put the shredded/grated carrot in a bowl and mix with the oil, lemon juice and salt. Mix gently with your hands if you like, and then add some freshly ground black pepper. Serve quickly.

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Cutting for stone

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IMG_4413One of the main differences between England and Los Angeles that I have found is that where I’m from there isn’t a van on the side of the road selling mangoes. And coconuts with a straw. On the way back from the beach, tailing our way back from Malibu, wending our way up through Topanga Canyon, past the waves of blossoming, listing fennel and tall grey-green hills, there is always at least one open-backed van with a Mexican lady selling her boxes for $10 a piece. It could be avocados or strawberries, you’re never entirely sure, but you’ll be alerted by the signs. And then inside there’ll always be more. We bought a box of nine mangoes, but by the time we got home there were only seven. Mangoes are very hard to resist particularly when they have that give to them; these were on their way to softness, heavy as artillery in the hand, but oddly human to the touch, like a thigh or a calf.

There is none of the banter here that you would get in England. A box of mangoes would yield at least a bit of to and fro about the weight – are you alright there, love? Oh, these ones are gorgeous, just cut it in two and have it with a bit of cream, lovely – a bit of rough and tumble, someone sighing that you were taking too long. There’d be something. Here the exchange is reduced to the price. There was no acknowledgement I was there from the man standing next to me, even though it was just him and me on the side of a dusty road. Him, me and the lady with the fruit. She had her hair in pigtails, which on her looked expedient rather than odd. The three of us did the deed knowing we would not be seeing one another again. It was on the tip of my tongue to say something, because as an English person it is hard to let a moment go by without some kind of dithering nicety.IMG_4412

Hot isn’t it? The sea is cold. This road is long, isn’t it? It’s very green here etc. There’s none of that in LA. Here strangers tend to the loud and polite school of conversation – as if you have fallen down a well or a manhole but have sustained no serious injuries and would be up for a chat. “HI, HOW ARE YOU?” “Good, how are you?” “GREAT. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND”. Or they’re silent, as if you’re not there at all. I have swum close enough in the pool to be able to read the typeface on a novel (by John Green), without so much as a flicker from the reader, perched on the steps with her legs under water, her torso dry as a bone, her nails a perfect peach. I would love to have said “Who’s John Green?” but that would have been to break the seal of silence, opening up a conversation possibly without end, and anyway I could always look it up on the internet. I don’t really want to know who John Green is, I just want you to know I’m here.

I gave two more mangoes away so we were left with five. It was after a conversation with one of our B&B guests. She’d stayed for only two days and was on her way out, up the coast to Big Sur. But we got chatting and then an hour went by, and she left with a mango in each hand and the rest of the chocolate-cardamom cookies, because they spoke to her ‘Indian soul’. Originally from New Delhi,  she is a writer, a reader and a lover of food. We exchanged favourite books; I will now be reading Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. I hope my book recommendations made the grade, but it really doesn’t matter, because I had a conversation. A proper one. I made a friend. I bought some mangoes and gave them away. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND!IMG_4429

The trick to cutting into a mango, I have learnt, is to cut as close to the stone as possible. Cut on either side, vertically, so that you have two even slabs of orange flesh, and then a central panel with the stone embedded, which you can gnaw around. There is no point trying to be demure; you will be dripping in mango juice and picking the fibres out of your teeth, so you might as well enjoy yourself. Score the two halves of flesh (which will have the skin still attached) into cubes, which you can eat as you would an orange quarter or slice them off into a bowl to which you add lemon or lime juice. A meal would be a mango and avocado salsa, to which you have added some chile, cilantro, sea salt and lime. But to my mind, one of the finest uses for mangoes is in kulfi, the Indian ice cream. It is made traditionally with malai (milk boiled down to cream) but it can be reasonably faked with evaporated or condensed milk.

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Cutting for Stone is the name of a novel I have had languishing on my shelves for a while, unread, and now unreadable due to its being dropped in the bath (although the first chapter is fine and also very compelling so I will press on). I thought the title apt.

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