Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Scratch Sunday lunch and going ethical

J and I went to see friends at the weekend - old housemates and assorted friends, girlfriends and boyfriends in Holloway. We turned up with wine at 1pm as requested only to find everyone very hungover and a fridge empty apart from a value chicken and some drumsticks... Miraculously not Sunday-morning hungover myself (too many Christmas parties in the week meant an early booze free-ish Saturday night) and with nine hungry people, there was only one thing for it. Armed with the roast chicken recipe from last week, I sent J to the shops for a few vital supplies (ready made yorkshire puddings, potatoes and a lemon) and started cooking. The afternoon was vastly improved by Jen's addition of mince-pie-loveliness for pudding... Jus-rol ready puff pastry, rolled out thin; spread mincemeat on top, sprinkle with lemon zest, roll into sausage shape, cut into inch-long pieces and bake at GM4 til it's done, served with custard or ice-cream (or both if you're J and greedy).

The meal itself was fine - veg, roast regular and sweet potatoes, yorkshire puds, roast chicken and gravy - but the meat really lacked the flavour and texture of the chicken from last weekend. And no wonder. Battery reared broilers with a horrible quality of life = unappetizing, fatty meat that no amount of butter, fresh herbs, lemon and garlic can save. The drumsticks were slightly better but I don't hold out much hope of the soup from the resulting stock. As I've been cooking a lot more lately, but buying fairly good quality ingredients, it really made me think again about how we eat.

Following on from last Sunday's revelation about food quality, late in the day by north London standards, I'm starting to think far more about the ethical dimension of what I put on my plate. I've already become one of those annoying people who asks whether the fish is farmed when eating out, and I've decided very literally to put my money where my mouth is from 2010. As of January 1st next year, we're eating seasonal, free range, organic food from small local suppliers as often as possible. That's not to say there won't be the occasional trip to Sainsbury's (particularly for that emergency bottle of wine). And no, I'm not starting with an organic veg box - mainly because I don't want to throw away box after box of turnips - there's only so much root veg soup one girl can eat, particularly when I can't heat it up in the office the next day. Some weeks we eat out most nights. But lots of the time I cook most nights, and I'm becoming more and more convinced that if enough of us at least try, then we can make a difference to supermarket buying patterns and farming techniques. This also extends to making meat an occasional treat rather than the centrepiece of every evening meal.

Now if someone just can tell me where I can buy a regular, tasty, good-for-the-enviroment-and-my-wallet lunch every day without swelling the ever-growing coffers of Pret a Manger, I'll be on to a winner.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Christmas cards

A non-food blog, for once.

Tonight marked the first time in my life when I've actually sent Christmas cards, properly, to all my scattered people across the planet. It's something I don't normally bother with; mainly as not many people do it, and partially because I've always thought it was a bit of a waste of resources. This year is different, somehow. Earlier this week I got to thinking about friends of mine, close and distant, and the fact that I'm now in touch with wider members of my family that I haven't been in touch with before. Christmas cards, a small, personal token of regard, are a little way of saying 'I've thought of you in the last few weeks, I'm glad we're in touch and I'd like to keep it that way'. Particularly with the growing number of friends of mine who are now living overseas.

Part of this is also how exciting it is to receive proper post - rather than the usual round of bills, payslips and circulars. I put myself in the shoes of a friend in Japan who would not be expecting a card - and included a long personal note inside about how my year has gone, and some questions about his, in his card.

This is not a paean to the round robin. Actually, I can't imagine anything I'd rather less receive than an update on so and so's sister who's had a boob job, and whose child now has a swanky job at a merchant bank. It's not that I wouldn't like to hear those things - just that I'd rather not hear them in a letter written as blandly as possible so as not to upset any elderly relations reading it, photocopied on the office copier and shoved into an envelope with two handwritten words on the card itself (name of sender and recipient). Let's either do christmas cards properly, or not at all.

Ahhh, Sundays

Today was a happy day - Sunday lunch with two of my best friends and the boy.

My Mum always used to make a gorgeous, creamy watercress soup when I was little, but almost all of the recipes online or in my cookery books include potato, which is far too heavy if it's for a starter. I finally managed to find something uploaded by an American on allrecipes.com - great for all sorts of things. Melt 60g of butter in a large pan, and whisk in 55g plain flour to a roux base. Then slowly add 945ml chicken stock (I didn't have any in, and used those new jelly stock things by Knorr - ok, but slightly too salty - definitely stick with homemade if you have it) then 340g (four supermarket bags) of chopped watercress. Simmer for 20 minutes, then add 475 ml half-and-half. (For English cooks, that's a mix of single cream and milk - slightly heavier on the milk). Warm through and serve with a sprig of watercress on top.

This was almost exactly what Mum used to make and created three calls for seconds.

Then roast chicken. I've started making much more of where my food is sourced from, and how it's looked after for the meat option - mainly as a result of watching a documentary on More 4 called The End of the Line about the complete loss of fish stocks, which then made me think much more about everything else I eat. So this was an organic, corn fed, free range bird and was absolutely gorgeous. I tried a Nigel Slater tip or two: inside the bird, half a lemon and a chunk of butter; the skin outside rubbed with a mix of chopped tarragon, chopped thyme, three cloves of garlic and lots of butter. The other half of the lemon was squeezed over the top and kept in the roasting tin, then plenty of salt and pepper. The result was gorgeous; made even nicer by gravy made in the roasting dish with a glass of white wine and a glug of vermouth. Mmmm. Trying this one again.

To finish I made a self-saucing pudding from the Australian Women's Weekly cookbook, the recipe for which I won't post until I've got it right - it was nice, but the sponge top was far too doughy and the sauce wasn't really chocolatey enough. Still, by this time, the drinkers were several glasses of wine to the good and the non-drinker was on a caffeine high so no complaints!

A three and a half hour lunch = lovely afternoon.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Strange sources of inspiration #1 - Benugo, BFI, Southbank, London

Having a quiet chat and a couple of drinks with my friend Lucy this evening required a bit of mopping up, and after a big lunch at a conference, I didn't fancy much more than the soupe du jour. The title Pea and Turmeric Soup kind of put me off, I have to say - as did the presentation with four greasy croutons and a thick trace of oil across the surface of the bowl as a device to make it look sexy. No need to bother - the soup was thick, warming and spicy, and made me keen to figure out how to make it (suggestions welcome). Extra chopped coriander on the top gave it a small but welcome bite (I think chilis are required, but then I always do).

Sunday, 22 November 2009

There's a reason they tell you to chill...

I went for the first run tonight in over a year - managing all of ten minutes in one go before having to walk. From tiny acorns, though, oaks grow, so I hope this tiny acorn makes its way back into the habit I used to love so much (and do something about my shape!)

To celebrate getting back on the exercise wagon, I tried to make Nigel Slater's chicken liver pate this evening, along with homemade bread. Both are pretty simple: the pate is chicken livers (about 400g, soaked in milk for half-hour before using) panfried in about 70g of butter till pale gold, then blended with another 40g butter, 90ml whipping cream and some salt and pepper. Burn off the juices from the frying pan with a good glug of brandy, then add this to the mixture. Strain through a sieve into a bowl and chill for 30 mins - then cover in melted butter (taking the froth off first) and spoon over the bowlful of pate, which by now should be looking creamy and pinky and delicious. Wait at least three hours...

The bread is equally easy - 500g of strong white flour mixed with 700ml water and a yeast sachet and 10g of salt; mix, knead for ten mins, leave to rise for an hour, knead for five mins, leave to rise for another hour on a floured baking tray, then bake at GM9 for around 10 mins then turn down to GM7 and bake for another 30 mins or so, 'til when you tap on the bottom, it sounds hollow.

My mistake tonight was too much haste. I took the bread out of the oven 5 - 10 minutes too soon (so is heavy, doughy and thick) and rushed the pate out of the fridge after two hours. The resultant pink goo tasted ok (even if the bread didn't) but just goes to show too much anticipation shouldn't lead to a lack of patience. This is one meal that if I'd waited another hour or so, would have been perfect. Next time I'll wait.