24 Jan 21

This week the news that schools are unlikely to open until March and no talk of a lift on Lock Down leaves us all flat and weary. Covid feedback varies with every newscast but there is consistently good news on the vaccination schedule, with talk of June as a realistic date for herd immunity. Fingers crossed. My cooking week majors on comfort food with plenty of ideas for using leftovers and conjuring delicious meals from very little but my great discovery is a way of cooking aubergine that avoids it soaking up masses of oil. Friday treat is a Quality Chop House home meal (QCH@Home) that begins with smoked cod roe garnished with cured egg, finishes with chocolate and salted caramel brownie, with some of those sublime confit potatoes and Highland bone-in sirloin in between.


How very strange and wonderful to look out of the bedroom window this morning and see the garden covered in a thick layer of snow and more snow falling. I couldn’t wait to get out in it and see Red scampering in the snow but first I wanted to make pastry for Forfar Bridies, the simplified Scottish take on Cornish pasties. I’d remembered the recipe when I was wondering what to do with not very much leftover steak, so bulked up the recipe pasty-style with potato, adding a knob of butter and extra onion to keep the mixture moist. With an egg glaze, the Bridies were very good, best eaten with fingers and nothing else. Supper was a real treat of roasted duck leg confit (www.dukeshillham.co.uk), roasted until the skin glazed into a thin, crisp sheet, the perfect foil to the succulent, dark meat beneath. It was rich enough and satisfying enough after our late lunch of steak pasties to require no accompaniment but French tinned peas and maybe some frites would be the ideal add-ons.


I appear to have double or treble bought aubergine this week, so my fridge is laden with them. I slice and roast three with no particular end in mind and experiment with steaming another couple thickly sliced in rounds. I can’t believe it’s never occurred to me to steam aubergine before but once I looked into it, it became obvious that this is a very neat way of avoiding sliced or diced aubergine soaking up masses of oil when it’s roasted or fried. The soft slices can then be oiled and quickly fried or griddled or added to curries or south East Asian dishes with soy. I used some of the slices instead of lasagne to make Lasagne-Meets-Moussaka, a very successful layering of pork mince with roast tomatoes, a thick béchamel topping under a deep gratinee finish of Parmesan and breadcrumbs. Leftovers were even better the next day.


For lunch I had another go at inventing a toasted sandwich recipe for a new menu at www.krinklewood.com, a biodynamic vineyard my nephew Oscar has just taken over in NSW. I called it Greek Toastie with Creamed Feta and it’s my idea of heaven, a slippery pile of buttery-soft aubergine with roast tomatoes and red pepper with creamed feta, the bread toasted with vinaigrette rather than the usual oil or butter. All the ingredients are make ahead, pre-cooked and at the ready in the fridge in plastic boxes. For supper I added some of the leftover augergine slices I’d cooked yesterday to one of those lovely chorizo-flavoured stews, this one with chicken and chickpeas, served with cous cous. Chicken, Chickpeas and Chorizo Stew is blessedly simple to make, requiring no special cooking skills and ingredients are easy to come by. I love stews like this with cous cous to soak up the copious juices but it could be served with crusty bread or with noodles, rice or loads of green veg, anything from sprouts to cabbage or peas from the freezer.


Today I’m forced to address the state of the house, particularly the kitchen and bathrooms. So, a Mrs Mops day, with a late dog walk which ended up going past the fishmonger (without a queue for once) and treating us to a couple of Dover soles. Skinned and grilled with butter, they were superb with M&S oven frites from the freezer (stacked in handy boxes for two) and cooked in 11 or 12 minutes.


I’m working my way through my second kilo bag of peeled, large raw prawns discovered in the freezer cabinet at my fishmonger www.coventgardenfishmongers.co.uk. It’s a useful standby, a handful added to fish pie or a quick pasta supper but lovely in risotto. My original plan was prawn and leek risotto but the discovery of a fennel bulb in the bottom of one of the fridge veg drawers prompted Prawn and Fennel Risotto. Unintentionally I made enough for four but the leftovers were fabulous stirred into So Simple Leek and Potato Soup. This soup is still my favourite quick and easy soup, ready in about 15 minutes, so perfect for lunch in these Lock Down Days.


Way back in my Time Out restaurant reviewing days Smithfield was in no way trendy, essentially known for it’s meat market and the surrounding area dotted with late night and early morning cafes and pubs that fed its workers. Up the road at Mount Pleasant, a handful of Italian-owned cafes and food shops did the same for the post office workers. One particular favourite of mine at the Mount Pleasant end of Farringdon Road (not far from Time Out’s offices in Grays Inn Road) was the Quality Chop House, subtitled Progressive Working Class Caterer. The long, narrow room with its polished wooden tables with banquette seats weren’t comfortable enough to linger but there were sausage and bacon fry-ups, hot toast, strong tea and later liver and onions, home made pies or fish and chips for lunch, home made buttered rock cakes for tea. By and by, in 1989, it was taken over by Charles Fontaine, the chef whose food really put Le Caprice on the map. Charles was a stickler for perfection in his new kingdom. He moved in upstairs and cleaned up the Café but maintained its original interior dating back to the late eighteen hundreds. The wooden benches and tables were cleaned up, the walls whitewashed and kitchen upgraded. With Charles came favourites from Le Caprice, his sublime, tall salmon fish cake on its sorrel sauce, a proper Ceasar salad, calves liver and bacon (my favourite), great frites and fish soup with rouille. When Charles moved on (I’m sorry to say I’ve had no news of my old friend for years), QCH had a brief and ill-fated spell as a meatball place before it was firmly put on the map by Will Lander, chef-son of wine and food writers Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander. A couple of years ago they expanded next door and introduced a shop where they are coping with Lock Down 3 with a very, very successful QCH@Home. Our www.shopthequalitychophouse.com kicked off with a small sourdough loaf to quickly bake for 5 minutes to be eaten with rich, creamy Jersey butter piled high with even more creamy, pale and fluffy smoked cod roe topped by a grating of cured egg yolk. This way of cooking and serving egg yolk was a new experience for me (I wonder what they do with the white) but it looked very pretty and tasted subtly delicious. Main course was a huge Highland bone-in sirloin cooked first in a huge amount of brown butter then finished in a low (90C) oven and followed by a brief rest before slicing. I think I under-did the first part of cooking, because even by my bleu preference, it was beyond bleu and needed a few more minutes frying. Delicious though the meat was, the star was the famous confit potatoes; neatly cut wedges of fast-pressed pre-cooked (in duck fat) slices of potato just requiring a short fry to crisp up the edges. After all that, we couldn’t manage the chocolate and salted caramel brownie with clotted cream. That delicious treat was saved for another occasion.


Uncharacteristically lazy day with thoughts of a Chinese takeaway gaining momentum and eventually winning over. Tried in vain to order from local May’s Chinese on Devonshire Road. In the end, registered with Deliveroo because second choice Chinese – Shikumen at Dorsett Hotel in Shep Bush – only do takeaway through them. Anyway, it worked brilliantly and I know from several visits to Shikumen since they opened in 2014 that the food is reliably excellent. And they do dim sum. It turned out that Deliveroo make it easy to order, delivery is prompt, their portions very generous and come in my favourite re-use plastic boxes. We ordered too much but leftovers were perfect Sunday lunch with a couple of poached eggs. Dishes that deserve special note are their crispy duck with pancakes, shredded spring onion and cucumber with plum sauce. We had a quarter and it was very generous and beautifully prepared, the pancakes in their own box lined with a special perforated nappy to avoid the pancakes sticking. Also excellent was braised eggplant with minced chicken in a spicily hot Sichuan sauce which I’d love to know how to cook and noodles with beansprouts (you can find my recipe here: Chinese Noodles with Beansprouts). This was a huge hit with us and we’ll be ordering again and booking in the restaurant as soon as it’s possible. How I long to go out to a restaurant, almost any restaurant but definitely to my local favourites.