As I write, we are enjoying a much-needed burst of summer sun but during the week of 23 May, spring was not in the air. In fact it was freezing. My recipes, though, suit rain and shine, cold and warm weather alike.
It’s 10.30 and raining cats and dogs and we’re just about to sally forth for a long walk in the rain, discussing what we’ll have for lunch when we get back. The B’s phone springs into life. It’s the River Café. He’s been on a waiting list for lunch today but had forgotten all about it. Could we do 1pm? We certainly could. So Red’s walk is shortened. Their use of outside space, all socially distanced and protected by glass screens and cleverly placed umbrellas has created a second restaurant. The poor staff scurry about, serving inside and out but the operation is smooth in that special RC way. I can’t resist caponata Siciliana to start, a warm stew of soft and creamy violetta aubergine, tomatoes, green olives, softened celery heart, capers, pine nuts and a few luscious sultanas. It is, like everything on the menu, extremely tempting and stunningly expensive, probably double what you might expect to pay. I’ve been coming to the River Café since it opened and have never had a duff meal. I invariably want everything on the menu and still regard coming here as a major treat. The B has a dish called Granchio, a lovely herby stew of fresh borlotti beans with chunks of Devon crab. I love crab at the River Café, they have delicious ways of preparing it. With these lovely starters, there is just baked focaccia oozing their peppery olive oil. As the wind blows and the rain lashes all around us, we want comfort food and both opt for Stinco di Vitello a humungous piece of veal shin slow roasted in rosso di Montalcino with fresh sage, slow-cooked spring peas, everything perked up with a dusting of gremolata, a fail-safe livener of finely chopped flat leaf parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Our plates were wiped clean. Reader it was so good. The B had never tried their caramel ice cream, so we ordered one portion. It is so very, very good.
In my freezer I find the second 500g pack of pork chipolatas (2 for a fiver) we bought recently at Allington Farm Shop just outside Chippenham. If you are ever anywhere nearby, I do urge you to check out this shop (www.allingtonfarmshop.co.uk tel 01249 058112), the finest, best-stocked farm shop I’ve ever visited. While the sausages defrost, I make an onion and tomato stew with a hint of chilli but mainly flavoured Greek style with oregano and thyme, then stirred with a jar of my favourite Navaricco Judion large Spanish butter beans. Like the chickpeas (garbanzos) in their range, they are worth paying over the odds for, soft and creamy and in a delicious almost jellied juice. I poach the sausages in chicken stock made with a cube, then pop the the drained stock in a shallow bowl in the freezer, so that fat firms on the top and can be scooped away. I oil and sear the sausages on a griddle to give them lovely scorch marks and more flavour, and stir them into the stew with some of the fat-free but richly flavoured stock from the freezer. Delicious heated up later and served with frozen petits pois and a splash of Worcester sauce. Chipolatas with Oregano Butter Beans is definitely something I’ll be making again and urge you to give it a try.
It’s my grandson Caspar’s birthday today and we are invited round for a family supper. I thought it was going to be an Indian takeaway but instead, we are having a Lebanese mezze spread. I can’t get enough of the garlicky, smoky, creamy pureed aubergine moutabal (see my version here: Chicken Kebab with Moutabal) and keep dipping into a huge mound of tabbouleh, such a generous and zingy salad of diced tomato, flat leaf parsley, spring onion and a little bulgar wheat to soak up the juices seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and mint. I give a recipe in The Big Red Book of Tomatoes (page 252) but I’ll make it again and post it here. There’s labneh cheese, crunchy, nutty, toasty falafel, very good hummous surrounded by chicken nuggets, golden brown globes of crushed wheat and lamb kibbeh nayeh plus little samboussek pastries stuffed with minced meat, pine kernels and cream cheese. Plenty of puffy pizza-style toasted flat bread is perfect to scoop up the dips. We all loved this feast and it was good to see the grandchildren wolfing up this delicious food. The finale was a particularly luscious M&S cake with 12 candles.
One of the dishes both my sons loved when they were growing up was Thai Green Chicken Curry, now introduced by Zach to his family and his little boys love it. Yesterday’s Lebanese birthday supper chosen by 12 year Caspar got me thinking about how lucky my boys were, growing up with a restaurant critic mother who often took them out reviewing. There is very little food they dislike and they are positively adventurous in what they cook. Anyway, thoughts like this prompted me to make Thai Green Chicken Curry, a dish I haven’t cooked for years. I’d forgotten how delicious it is and how wonderful it smells in the making. We always have basmati rice with it and my foolproof way of achieving perfect rice result is to carefully wash the rice until the water runs clean, then cook it in 1 ½ times the rice weight of water, no salt. Bring it slowly to the boil, turn the heat as low as possible, cover than pan and cook for 10 minutes. Leave, lid intact, for 10 minutes then fork up the rice to loosen the grains. The recipe was developed for A Wolf in The Kitchen, Easy Food for Hungry People, the book that developed out of an article I wrote for the Evening Standard when Zach went to university, later re-published as Hungry? with a cover designed by Zach.
Quite by chance I came across an old recipe of mine for
Garlic Pork with Garbanzos, Spinach and Tomato when I was looking for something else and liked the sound of it so much, that I went shopping specially so I could make it. It is very simple, a combination of garlicky nuggets of pork in a fresh tomato sauce thickened with chickpeas and spinach. I used particularly meaty pork belly slices but any lean pork is suitable. The meat should end up with a slight chew that works well with the mealy texture of chickpeas, chilli-flecked tomato juices and slippery spinach. Good with crusty bread or, surprisingly, over cous cous.
Many years ago, in the early days of Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, a group of restaurant critics and wine writers were flown down to Newquay and taxied over to then little known Padstow to celebrate a special award from Decanter magazine. Apart from everything we ate, which was delicious (obviously), I was blown away by the potatoes (remember, I am the author of In Praise of the Potato). I left with a bag of potatoes scrounged from the kitchen (thank you Rick). As far as I know, they were my first taste of Cornish Earlies. I’ve loved them ever since and always seek them out. Anyway, thanks to The B’s google skills (www.thecornishfoodboxcompany.co.uk; search Cornish Early Potatoes), I have several pounds of Cornish Earlies and spent the morning scraping some of them ready to boil for a humungous potato salad for a family party organised by one of The B’s sisters. While the potatoes boiled, I made the dressing. I wanted a hint of onion without the astringency of raw onion, so left finely diced shallot in a bowl of clingfilm-lidded boiling water until cold. I then stirred the drained onion into mayonnaise flavoured with Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and a little olive oil whisked in to achieve Heinz Salad Cream consistency. I folded the drained, slightly cooled potato into the dressing and finalized the salad just before we left with finely snipped chives from the garden.
I was intending to make a mound of little Minted Leek and Feta Pasties for The B’s family lunch party but ran out of time. It didn’t matter a jot, because when he went to pick up the 5 Hedone white sourdough loaves I’d ordered from www.bayley-sage.co.uk. The B bought a few of their very good Scotch eggs. The Scotch eggs, incidentally, make very good snack food cut into quarters, the egg lifted out so the curve of filling can be smeared with a squeeze of English mustard before the egg is popped back. I took a sharp, fold-away knife specially (a small Opinel) so I could do that the minute we arrived. My potato salad joined a groaning table of cold cuts, cheese, tomato and other salads, with the second birthday cake of the week for us (this time The B’s son).