What I miss most about lockdown is my regular chaotic way of food shopping that inspires my cooking. It might be a wander round my local Farmers Market, gazing into the butcher or fishmonger’s window, or bargains at my favourite high road fruit and veg stall. When I am stuck for cookery inspiration, food shopping is where I find it. I am also rarely cooking for more than The Barrister and me, although I occasionally make more than I need so I can make a dinner delivery to a friend or relation. I do, of course, still shop at all these places but not as often, relying instead on The B’s Ocado slot. We’ve had lots of pic-nics, usually with a jar of egg mayo, slab of cheese and sometimes a tray of Italian cold cuts. I love pic-nics, something I’ve inherited from my mum who would turn a walk down the lane from our house into a pic-nic, sitting under a tree with a bottle of her ‘coloured water’ known as ‘oro-lem’, a weak solution of orange and lemon squash, and a slice of ‘nutty slack’ or buttered barm brack. This week, I cook for a guest and it really was a treat.
This morning I am up in good time making Cheddar and Branston pickle sandwiches on chunky slices of sourdough, the rounds cut in half and individually wrapped in foil. We’ll be eating them with hard-boiled eggs peeled and cooled under running water in their cooking pan. They join tiny cherry tomatoes in a plastic box with a few cherries for pudding. I fill Red’s bottle with water and pack her a pic-nic too, her usual stuff in its own little plastic box. We are planning to drive to High Halstow and the Isle of Grain, in Kent for an 8 mile circular walk with this pic-nic lunch. Red is upstairs and The Barrister is showering and dressing as I do pic-nic work but he calls down that Red is just standing with her tail between her legs, looking depressed and continually licking her lips. ‘I think your dog is telling us something’, he calls. ‘She’s not right’. Yesterday we’d taken her for a walk in Richmond Park and at one point, she chased a rabbit and later started limping. Usually she hassles to be first through the door the minute the key goes in the lock but this time, she just stood there as if she was waiting to go out. We decided to abort our trip and I rang the vet, managing to get an appointment for Red at 2pm. We decide to take our pic-nic with us to Richmond and see how Red gets on with a walk before her vet visit. She limps a bit but seems so happy to be out, sniffing, rolling and running as best she can, then wolfs down her pic-nic. The vet can find nothing horribly wrong, suggesting she’s either pulled a muscle or has intermittent arthritis. Drugs are prescribed; we head for home and immediately open a bottle of wine to celebrate that it is nothing very serious. First thing this morning, I’d had a deep freeze cull, take out a leg of lamb for supper, some minced beef and chicken, with no particular end in view. The lamb we thought we’d cook in the beehive and I invited son Henry to join us for an outside social distancing supper. I pottered about getting the beehive ready, sweeping out past ash, wiped down the garden table and chairs and cursed the intermittent rain showers. Years ago, when eldest son Zach was growing up, we’d have parties spilling into the garden for his 28 June birthday. Furniture would be moved to the side, kelims brought out, the beehive lit, candles and Moroccan lamps fired up and the inevitable rain stemmed by a series of umbrellas hooked through the struts of the pergola. Once the rain was so heavy, we stretched decorator’s plastic sheeting over the top, pinned to the outside house wall and side fences, making a plastic cabin of the garden just outside our French windows. Anyway, why not do it again? So I did, hooking up our collection of man umbrellas from The B’s Chambers, so the table was protected. It worked a treat. In fact I might do it again although it prompted a conversation about pull-out canopies and I gather The Barrister has searched out a company that supplies them and a catalogue is on its way. I made hummus with Spanish chickpeas from a jar, possibly the silkiest, smoothest hummus I’ve ever made and that is saying something. I don’t know if these garbanzos from Navarrico, imported by Brindisa and widely available are skinned but my friend, the Lebanese cookery writer Anissa Helou once told me that rubbing away the skins of cooked chickpeas makes the best hummous. She’s right, of course, but what a palaver it is to do; the little skins seem to multiply as the process gets under way. I used hard, juicy new season garlic, lemon juice, peppery Tuscan olive oil and a dollop of sesame paste, the secret ingredient a splash of Tabasco and dusting of cumin. My sons could justifiably say they were reared on my hummus (recipe: Lamb Kebabs with Hummus), we had it virtually every night, usually with strips of toasted pitta but often with lamb or chicken kebabs. It prompted one little friend of Henry’s to ask, ‘what is that strange butter you eat?’ We are also having M&S big chunky oven chips, unpeeled onions will be popped into the embers and the lamb rubbed with olive oil oil, salt and pepper. For green, we have baby courgettes and a mixture of green, purple and yellow beans from the garden. It was a feast of a meal, the lamb a tad over-cooked but very delicious cooked quickly in the fierce heat of the beehive, rested and deftly sliced by The B who learnt his carving skills from his father and is one of the best carvers I know. I made mint sauce with mint flourishing in a big pot in the garden. This was the first time since we’ve been back in London after the first month of lockdown with Henry in the Black Mountains that I’ve cooked a meal for a guest. Okay, it was my son but it still meant there was a sense of occasion in laying the table, making the preparations, lighting the candles etc. He rocked up on his bright yellow Vespa, so we were circumspect with the booze but it was a great meal and a lovely evening.
Monday is Mrs Mopps day for me and as I get ready to wash the kitchen floor, moving the dog’s bowls into the garden, I see our intermittently resident frog. He or she is a pretty little thing and sometimes jumps into the kitchen, playing on the diagonal checkerboard tiles. As I write, I think of frog’s legs as a dish popular in the sixties and seventies and shiver at the thought of it. I take a break from cleaning and get the ball rolling for a super-simple soup that can cook in the oven while I work. It fills the air with work-harder-it-will-soon-be-lunch temptation. Red Oven Soup is basically gathering gazpacho ingredients – cherry tomatoes, chopped red pepper, garlic and red onion, adding a splash of olive oil and cooking it gently covered with foil in the oven. Forty minutes later everything is soft and squishy, it can be liquidized with chicken stock to turn into soup nectar. I make Garden Salad for lunch, adding freshly picked rocket and mint to shredded little gem lettuce and last night’s leftover beans with hard-boiled egg and grated Cheddar for lunch. I had planned to make a variation on Old Fashioned Shepherd’s Pie with Lemon Mash for supper but as I carved the remaining meat from the leg bone, the meat closest to the bone looks so pink and inviting, I decided we’d have it with jacket potatoes, more home made mint sauce and peas. My mum taught me to make Mint Sauce. It’s very simple and doesn’t really need a recipe but here it is made with mint that grows wild in various parts of my back garden. And you’ll find the jacket potatoes here: Lamb Chops, Diamond Jackets and Minted Pea Puree.
I couldn’t resist the sight of an enormous, fat leek when I nipped out to the shops for one or two bits and pieces. I turned it into Leek and Parmesan Risotto with Mint, very generous with leek but really worth it. In a lull in proceedings, I grated a huge, overgrown courgette from the garden, salted it and left it overnight to drain.
Up early to make soup for The B to take to Chambers, a super-quick but very delicious Minted Courgette Soup with Lemon which I thickened with some of last night’s risotto but a couple of spoonsful of rice could be simmered in stock to do the job. Supper was Lamb Ragu served over silky pasta with a mound of beans from the garden. How lucky we are with these plants, they keep on giving.
This summer my fig tree, really more of an overgrown shrub, its roots restricted in a flower pot as I’m assured it is wise to do, has gone mad. The branches, if you can call them that, are laden with little figs and today I picked three ripe ones. Someone posted a fig leaf ice cream on instagram this morning and it reminded me of my little pot of finely ground dried fig leaves. I added a generous pinch to breadcrumbs for Fig Leaf Chicken Escalope with Cauliflower Cream. Last summer I pegged fig leaves to the washing line and let them dry naturally then cut out the central stalk and chopped them up in the magimix. The leaves lend a coconut flavour to sweet and savoury dishes. If you’ve got a fig tree, do try it. If you haven’t, you can still make this recipe; a useful way of serving a chicken breast, perfect with snowy white cauliflower cream best described as pureed cauliflower cheese. But subtle flavour and lovely fluffy texture.
Last week when Henry came for a garden supper, he was singing the praises of a meal out at Bibendum’s Oyster Bar at the front of the Michelin Building which backs onto the Conran Shop to the left and offices to the right. All the social distance niceties were in place, the staff very efficient and charming, all-in-all, a great treat, he said. The B, ever thoughtful, booked a table. We thought we would be sitting outside but word was obviously out, because when we arrived just before 8, the place was packed to the gunnels and the only truly outside tables taken. We were shown to a corner table right at the back of the room on the opposite side from the Conran shop, in front of what used to be the gates to Hamlyn the publishers. The staff were so nice, so attentive and helpful, bringing a paper menu when they saw us struggling with our phones to download it. The B ordered two martinis and asks for the wine list. There are little cannisters of hand sanitiser on the table like they’re condiments and in a way, I suppose they are. We are nervous and anxious, constantly looking around instead of at each other. It is supposed to be a treat but we want to get things under way as quickly as possible. The B decides instantly on sardines and crab pasta and I am incapable of taking in the menu and making a decision, so I double up and order the same. The sardines are big, more like Cornish sardines (pilchards), beautifully cooked so the meat slides off the carcass, leaving most of the hairy little bones behind it. The crab is rich and spicy, white and brown meat with a tomato reduction is wound round the pasta and quite delicious. I can’t finish mine. We still have a lot of wine left, so we ask if we can move closer to the front, to the air. Fortunately there is space. We have no complaints about our visit but are glad to leave. I yearn to eat out again but am finding it very difficult.
The B goes about his Saturday morning chores, including a visit to Bayley&Sage on newly traffic-free Turnham Green Terrace to buy a just-baked Hedone brown sourdough loaf (the bakery is back on form after a lull, the bread gorgeously damp, the crust beautifully crisp, the flavour wonderful). I cobble together a pic-nic of cheese and pickle sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs with a bottle beer to share and water for us and Red. We head off for Richmond and walk for 40 minutes before we settle down with our pic-nic. Back home we go through the weekly palaver of taking the bags of Ocado delivery outside to the garden table, I rinse everything in hot water, remove all packaging and leave everything overnight before it’s put away. The B has added a duck to our order and that’s what we have for supper. He dips into Pierre Koffmann’s book Memories of Gascony for cooking tips and likes the sound of adding a few black olives to the roasting juices. I slow-sauté par-boiled, chunked waxy Cyprus potatoes adding the first leach of duck fat, pick beans and courgettes from the garden and set the table nicely with cloth and glasses, special wine is decanted. While the duck rests, I see about 4 olives in the cavity and wonder aloud why there are so few. Decide to add them and more to the gravy I make and they were a good addition so thanks Pierre.