This morning I am the breakfast queen, cooking bagels with bacon and poached egg for one little grandson and preparing cornflakes with yoghurt and Greek honey swirl (in a second dish) for second grandson, who then wanted honey on toasted bagel. Next the dog got his bowlful then The B and I had the usual fruit salad with gooey, chewy French Agen prunes. All was quiet from the boys except weird sounds from the tv (breakfast was allowed in front of it while they watched the end of The Hobbit) but I was very pleased to be told it was the best ever bacon and egg sandwich (a new weekend craze at their house) because I’d fried the egg in a blini pan so it was neat and round and chopped the bacon so the rasher didn’t slide off the bagel sandwich at the first bite. Poured Fennel, Carrot and Spinach Soup into Kilner jar for The B to whizz up to his mum who has a Pimlico Plumbers emergency, resulting in no bathroom and no oven, so a hot bowl of soup might go down well. It’s very cold, but the sun is shining so we set off for our lunch date glad to be free of all responsibilities. We head along the river towards Hammersmith, dodging the sea of walkers, bikers, runners and occasional car for Sam’s at Riverside (www.samsriverside.co.uk) for lunch. Four big, long radishes with very fresh green leaves are a welcome sight on the table, served French-style with a pat of butter and sea salt for swiping and dipping. We have the dog, so sit at one of the bar tables happily soon sharing salt haddock croquettes with curry leaf mayo and crab toasts, the former quite superb; crunchy and generously filled, the white crab on neat squares of crisp, buttery cake-like toast. We both chose roast halibut, chanterelles, meuniere butter and chicken jus. The jus had an extraordinarily wonderful rich effect on the thick fillet of meaty halibut, perfectly cooked with a hint of pink at the bone. We shared a portion of chips with the fish and headed off for home while the sun was still out. My fridge was full of ingredients required for a pizza bonanza, so used some of them – spinach, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and mozzarella – to make a pasta supper. Dead easy, just fold a handful of baby spinach into al dente radiatore pasta, adding a chopped roast Romano pepper, a few diced peeled and seeded tomatoes (the seeds into a sieve over a bowl, then press to collect their juices) and torn pieces of mozzarella, tossing as the spinach melts. A doddle to make and bears out my theory that a box of filleted, roasted red peppers in the fridge is a godsend for instant suppers.
Last night before bed, I took a butterflied lamb shoulder (750g) out of the freezer with thoughts of a stew. This morning it’s raining again, cold and miserable, so I’m glad I did. I’d seen something somewhere recently about Robert Carrier, so I was drawn like a magnet to his book Great Spanish Dishes for inspiration, thinking there might be a Spanish cocida with red peppers. There wasn’t and I didn’t like the sound of his recipe for Malaga Lamb Stew but did like the thought of cooking the lamb with red wine, black olives and roasted red peppers. What I’m calling Spanish Lamb Stew was cooked slowly in the oven and served with carrots, peas and revitalized leftover mash (just heat a little milk with butter over a low heat, stir in the mash and warm through gently). It smelt enticingly Mediterranean but tasted fresh and light as opposed to heavy and rich. Highly recommended.
Years ago, when my sons were growing up, I used to make pizza a lot but I’d forgotten what a palaver it can be. As a reserve, for quick meal solutions, I would keep a stash of ready-made pizza bases and later, bought tortilla wraps, then a novel pizza base and a crisper, more authentic cheat. Son Zach, who worked at the River Café during his college years, makes pizza with his sons and they have a lovely time getting flour everywhere. He used to use the RC recipe but has switched to Jamie Oliver’s www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/bread-recipes/pizza-dough/ and both give terrific results. My other son, Henry, is wood fire cooking obsessed and his latest bible (augmenting Frances Mallmann, who we regard as the King of Fire) is The Ultimate Wood Fired Oven Cookbook by Genevieve Taylor. After a recent weekend in Wales (www.charity.uniquehomestays.com) where he is set up for all manner of different outside cooking options, the two sons and grandson made pizza with Henry’s favourite low-knead pizza dough from Genevieve’s book. The grandson (quite a little foodie) reported back to me, that the dough was ‘silky and really good’, so I ordered the book, so I could make it. Tonight is the night. Stupidly I left making the pizza dough until the end of the day and made the cardinal mistake of not reading the recipe through from start to finish. How many times have I told people to do exactly that and why did I assume I didn’t need to is a mystery. So, initial preparation is quick and simple, then there is a 10 second kneading at 10 minute intervals several times, so clocking up quite a bit of time. There follows a fermentation period – estimated at an hour – for the dough to double in size. That is not the end! You are then advised to make your sauces so I turned the page hoping to find final preparation for dividing up dough and cooking it but no; there is a whole load more to do and more time required. It was 8.40pm by now, so cut my losses, covered the rising dough in its bowl with clingfilm and stuck it in the fridge. We had a scratch supper of ever-favourite Nduja Baked Beans with Poached Eggs and Grated Cheddar, something I am always prepared for.
I love mornings like this, when I do nothing but cook and listen to Radio 4. I’m locked into The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, serializing for two glorious week on Woman’s Hour (Anton Lessing is quite brilliant as the Prince narrator) and it’s followed by a repeat of Alexi Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar which is a particularly brilliant episode about anger management and a lot else besides. Last night I took two partridge out of the freezer not quite sure what to do with them. I thought a slow-cooked dish, perhaps in red wine with wild mushrooms would work well, so I settled down to slicing them in half, cutting out the breast-bone and soaking dried porcini I found at the back of the food cupboard. Partridge with Porcini and Red Wine simmers away gently in the oven, will be left overnight and then simmered again for supper on Thursday. I also made Chianti Beef Ragu with Porcini more of the dried porcini and a wonderful mushroom soup with cous cous, leeks, dipping into my huge pot of Iranian saffron The B bought back from Dubai. The strands are longer, thicker and deeper coloured than I’ve ever seen and the flavour pronounced. It’s said that Iranian saffron is the best in the world and it certainly looks like it. I have a bowl of Saffron and Lemon Mushroom Soup for lunch and the flavour and fluffy, creamy texture is beguiling with hints of lemon, chilli and coriander against the musky mushroom. It’s 3.40pm and I’m going to take the pizza dough out of the fridge and leave it while I take the dog out and then address the final stage with views of pizza tonight. The poor dough obviously didn’t enjoy its overnight sojourn in the fridge but I left it for an hour or so to recover itself in my warm kitchen and it duly rose again as it warmed up. The next stage is to carefully ease the dough onto a floured work-surface, flour your hands and divide it up into equal oblongs then work into balls by tucking the dough under itself. These are placed on a floured surface, dusted with flour and left for about an hour. The instruction is not to roll the pizzas but work them with your fingers, easing them into thin circles. I did what I was told, smeared them with passata, adding chunks of mozzarella, black olives and capers. The dough was deliciously chewy and tasty but a tad tough and I suspect that is my fault. Next time, I’m going to try Jamie’s recipe; it seems simpler, less faff, quicker and I know the results are great. And he rolls them. I like Jamie’s timing tip: ‘it’s a good idea to roll the pizzas out about 15 to 20 minutes before you want to cook them. Don’t roll them out and leave them hanging around for a few hours, though – if you are working in advance like this it’s better to leave your dough, covered with clingfilm, in the fridge. However, if you want to get them rolled out so there’s one less thing to do when your guests are round, simply roll the dough out into rough circles, about 0.5cm thick, and place them on slightly larger pieces of olive-oil-rubbed and flour-dusted tin foil. You can then stack the pizzas, cover them with clingfilm, and pop them into the fridge.’
Another horrid rainy day, so very glad to have a bowl of steaming hot, interesting mushroom soup for lunch with a poached egg dropped in. I’m out for lunch tomorrow and it’s Partridge with Porcini and Red Wine for supper, so decanted the rest of the soup into a canister to take with us to St Leondards-on-Sea tomorrow, topping it up with a good slug of sherry. Yum. Can’t wait.
Spent the morning second-guessing what we will need for a weekend away, always wishing I had a series of lists suitable for different ‘aways’, so the job is mindless. In fact I’m going to do that.
The plan is to leave after lunch, me scurrying back from The Groucho where the Blondes are celebrating a Blonde Birthday. When we all worked at Time Out in Covent Garden, the Zanzibar, which morphed into The Groucho, was a regular haunt. My old boss Tony Elliott used to sign me in and then after years of getting into the Groucho through other members, the Club gave me a lifetime honorary membership. I did several book launch suppers for members but changes at the top mean – I think it was when Joel Cadbury took over – lifetime honorary memberships got the heave-ho, although I do get a very reduced membership and am loathe to let it go. So, it’s a bit of a for-old-times-sake choice for the lunch. I’d booked the dining room but after a sofa-drink, we automatically filed into The Backroom restaurant, now renamed Bernie’s in memory of Bernie Katz, former manager who died ludicrously young a couple of years ago. Bernie would have loved the menu; an itsy-bitsy sharing menu; all temptingly delicious and perfect for us. One blonde is a ‘vegetarian’ who eats chicken and fish, so was happy with little queenie scallops with prawn in a béchamel sauce with brioche crumbs, Puglian burrata (we are supposed to be going to Puglia in May) with pesto and crisp shards of garlic, Romanesco cauli with a hair of crisp leeks (I hope this isn’t making a comeback; it’s a waste of everyone’s time) and salsa verde, wood-roasted baby beetroot with goat cheese and blood orange (the least interesting dish), holding back on pancetta with potatoes, scamorza cheese and pickled red onion on flat bread (actually not holding back, so good we had to order another portion), and tuna, black olives with capers, oregano and pesto on a little pizza base. I’m the first to leave and get back just in time to load the car with help from The B and off we go to St Leonards, falling foul of snarl up slow traffic on the M25. No change there then. Supper is late and delicious; pasta and the ragu I’d made earlier in the week and frozen to take with us.
Up in good time to catch what sun there is today, walking along the seafront to Hastings to buy fish for supper and lunch tomorrow. Few of the black fishermen’s huts have their shutters open selling fish but we find one that has morning-caught dabs and Dover sole which we buy; the dabs virtually given away and the Dovers half the price of London. The latter are skinned and beheaded ready to be wrapped in foil with butter and a squeeze of lemon and roasted with Co-Op straight cut oven chips (750g bag, so plenty for another occasion). We bought a giant bloomer with sesame seeds from Judge’s Bakery in the Old Town to eat with cheese and Branston pickle for lunch. Since we’ve been coming to St Leonard’s, we’ve discovered a growing band of friends and friends of friends are regular visitors too. One such, Rainer Hersch, a talented friend of The B, a conductor, actor, writer and comedian known for his comical take on classical music (check his itinerary, his shows, with and without his orchestra which are hilarious and informative www.rainerhersch.com; there’s one coming soon at the Crazy Coqs) and his wife popped in for a drink tonight. My friend’s flat where we stay is part studio, part home and they have a routine of making toast in the sitting room/cum studio, so that’s what we’ve taken to doing. It might have seemed odd, but as the wine was poured I toasted some of that wonderful Judge’s Bakery loaf and smeared it with peat smoked Hebridean roasted salmon pate The B had ordered from www.hebrideansmokehouse.com. It went down very well, I can tell you. Hebridean Smokehouse produce is highly recommended and I’m with Prue Leith, who is quoted on their website as the best in the world for Scottish smoked salmon and shellfish.