Friday, November 27, 2020

My Life In ... Recipes

The eighth in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

As a bachelor for many years it was a case of "cook or starve". My hey-day for cooking was the 80's when I held regular dinner parties. My normal routine was to head off to the supermarket at high noon to do the shopping. I would then return and do all the prep including the veg sliced and diced and in bags in the fridge ready to cook so that, as far as possible, I had nothing to prepare when my guests arrived, just cook. At five o'clock I would sit down to relax with a gin and tonic and watch The A Team. When my guests arrived I was chilled and ready to enjoy my own dinner party as all was in order and ready to go.

The following is a long way short of all my favourite recipes but more a case of ones that stuck in the mind, sometimes not always for good reasons!

Unleavened bread (1965): the Boys Own Paper, a periodical from my early childhood, had a regular series of survival articles on how to, for example, escape from a car that had plunged into a river. It was a sort of primitive Ray Mears. One item included improvising a skewer by taking a green twig and stripping the bark to reveal the slippery inside stick. I made some basic unleavened bread mix using flour and water (although where you’re supposed to find a bag of flour in Mirkwood I don’t know). Not having the wherewithal to make fire in the garden my mother let me grill the chewy bread “sausage” in the kitchen. Whether it was edible or not I have no memory.

Crab Apple jelly (1967): in the nearby woods there was a crab apple tree where I scrumped a whole bagful of small, golfball sized apples. Boiled up they actually did produce a very palatable, lovely, pink jelly suitable for spreading on toast. Delicious and food for free!

Vesta Chow Mein (1973): Like many people, college was my first serious, needs-driven introduction to cooking. For the first two years at college I had no access to a kitchen in the accommodation where I lived so ate either in the college dining room or in the White horse pub (always pasty and beans). When I moved into a shared house in my third year I had to start the process of learning to cook. A regular was Vesta ready meals, not exactly cooking from scratch. I read that they deliberately tweaked the recipe every so often to prevent people from getting bored and so would come back for more.

Rabbit in Cider (1973): We had a party in the shared house where we served scrumpy brought up from Somerset by one of our friends, Vincent Russett. That Christmas I was given my first ever cook book by my sister's German boyfriend. One of the recipes was rabbit in cider so we thought we would give it a go. We went off to the covered market where we bought a whole rabbit which we asked the butcher to behead and skin and gut. We got it home and had no idea how to fillet it so Vince and Pete got out their dissecting kits and we dismantled the corpse. The resulting pieces of meat went into the cider and it turned out very tasty for my first ever attempt at real cooking.

Coq au Vin and Hertford Pudding (1974): Inspired by the success of the rabbit in cider, my three friends and I decided to host a dinner party for our college tutor. Coq au vin for the main course. We studied at Hertford College and so when I discovered a recipe called Hertford pudding it was a no-brainer what to serve for desert. It is simply chestnut purée flavoured with a little whiskey, stirred into whipped double cream to give a marbled effect and served in a wine glass, my first sophisticated pudding.

Mung Bean Moussaka (1975): After graduation my cooking repertoire expanded. I was introduced to The Cookery Year cookbook by Reader’s Digest and most of my culinary firsts came out of that including moussaka. I had the ingredients purchased and the aubergines all salted and sweated when suddenly two vegetarian friends were added to the guest list. Momentary panic then inspiration: substitute mung beans for mince, they would provide a similar granular texture to that of mince. So I soaked some beans and carried on as if nothing had happened. I was well pleased with my cunning improvisation.

Pheasant in cream and brandy (1976): After I started work I moved in with Lorna and Carmichael as their lodger. I bought a couple of pheasants from the same game butcher as the rabbit and following the recipe browned them in a ridiculous quantity of butter. The next step was to flambé with brandy rather like a Christmas pudding. I poured in a tablespoon of brandy, set light to it and it went out. So I repeated the process, same result. Once more, ditto. So I warmed up the pan, set fire to the brandy in the spoon, tipped it in and, Hey Presto, a pillar of fire of biblical proportions! Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!! When the flames subsided I poured in a whole tub of cream. Healthy it wasn’t but delicious it certainly was.

Hungarian goulash (1976): I was making a basic beef stew when I decided to experiment a little. Some variations of goulash and borscht include sour cream. Some dishes mix meat and fruit like duck a l'orange and gammon and pineapple. I didn’t have any sour cream but I did have a tub of black cherry yoghurt in the fridge. So, in a spirit of experimentation, I decided to add some into the stew. Unfortunately the yoghurt was past its sell-by date and had started to bubble a little so maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Alas the result was inedible and the stew wasted. Lesson learned!

Salty bread (1977): I started making my own bread following the recipe in The Cookery Year. Unfortunately there was a misprint so instead of 1 teaspoon of salt I added 1 tablespoon of salt. Of course as a novice bread maker I did not spot the typo. The first loaf went in the bin but the recipe was annotated and it got better after that I’m glad to say.

Birthday cake (1979): My first year in London was working in Sainsbury's head office and commuting in from the culinary desert that is North Acton. I invited a young lady round for dinner to celebrate her birthday. I decide to bake a rich fruit cake with icing and, as a novice baker, followed the recipe literally. It said cover it with marzipan so I did exactly what it said, I covered ALL sides including the bottom. Of course it stuck the circular breadboard I had been using as a base so I decided to cut it off using the breadknife. Inverting the whole assembly on the outstretched fingers of my left hand I quickly realised it wasn't going to work as the the weight of the cake sank it onto my fingers making holes like a bowling ball. I quickly flipped it back, smoothed the marzipan over the holes and iced the whole thing as if the breadboard had always been my "serving suggestion".

Crème brûlée (1990): One of my signature dishes this time thanks to a misreading, not a misprint. The recipe said 2 x 284ml (10 fl oz) and I read that as "10 fl oz" not "2 x 10 fl oz". So basically I used half the amount of cream with the result that the creme part was particularly rich. Once I discovered the misprint I decided to carry on making it ultra rich using 20fl oz and twice the number of egg yolks.

Peppers and capers (1991): a Carluccio recipe that I make regularly, often when we have pork chops or escalopes for which it is a perfect accompaniment. Even when Mary is cooking it is always my task to make this.

Gumbo (1998): Mary and I learnt how to make Gumbo at the New Orleans School of Cooking during our first visit to the jazz fest. Making the dark roux requires patience, manual dexterity and nerves of steel so I get the job of setting off the smoke detector whenever we have gumbo.

Nowadays Mary does almost all of the cooking while I act as commis chef, dishwasher operator, wine decanter and wine glass hand-washer.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Benson Row - 18

Penrith, Cumbria. October-2020.

The month started off slowly and then went into a bit of a decline.

First up we removed a chimney. Although it was capped off with copious quantities of lead we were still seeing damp patches on the chimney breast in our bedroom. Obviously not watertight! We had no need of the chimney as there is no fireplace in the bedroom and we removed the chimney breast in the kitchen / diner below when we took out the wall. 

This chimney sat above the junction where the middle and back cottages meet and the disparate rooflines made it hard to seal the join. So the answer was to remove the chimney completely, batten the roof and tile over the hole. The lads did a good job of matching the two different (of course) styles of tiles. While they were up there I got them to remove the redundant Sky dish, bracket and cabling; always satisfying to tidy things up.

In other news we had a water leak from the flying freehold where the neighbour's bathroom intrudes into our building at the first floor level. We informed the owner and the tenants and it would seem that some remedial action has been taken as we have had no further leaks. Provided it stays that way we just have an investigatory hole in the ceiling to patch. 

The living room floor was a different matter. The timber man came to implement the structural engineers plan to treat and reinforce the joists. Once he started work he did a sudden body swerve and decided to replace the offending sections entirely. As part of this he removed some plasterboard from the cellar ceiling leaving us with a big hole in the living room floor.

He then coach-bolted new timbers to the main cellar beam and affixed new joists from there to concrete pads in the front wall of the house. The plan was then for the floor fitter to come and lay new top joists, hardboard and engineered oak floor.

We had a two-seater and a three-seater sofa in the living room which had to go to a friend's garage for the duration to make the work possible. The corridor is too narrow to move them to the back of the house so they had to go out the front door. It was a "Right Said Fred" moment "we ought to take off all the handles, and the things wot held the candles." Only by unscrewing the sofa's feet and removing the door were we able to squeeze the sofa out the building. We will worry about the scuffs later.

That done the floor fitter could lift the remaining chipboard revealing evidence of woodworm and a dead mouse. The timber man was called back in and, after some discussion, it was decided to treat the remaining old oak timbers, remove all the 1970's joists and go for a complete replacement; all new treated timber with cross braces to stiffen and spread the load.

Unfortunately the work is now on hold because two of the floor man's children have tested positive for Covid-19 and he has to self-isolate for two weeks. Work will recommence mid-November with him keeping to the front half of the ground floor and us in the back. 

We really hope it will all be over by Christmas!