Our last couple of days in St Leonards and lunch today is those pretty little dabs bought yesterday at one of the black Hastings Fish Huts. I cook them whole, rinsed and patted dry, then floured and fried until the skin is crusty and golden. We scrape the sweet flesh off the carcass – 4 or 5 mouthfuls a side – then lift it clean away and eat the other side. With a squeeze of lemon and bread and butter, this is a really delicious meal and true bargain. I used to think that dabs were baby Dover soles (slip soles); they certainly look like them. In fact, they’re a species in their own right, small flat fish similar in taste and texture to flounder or plaice, their flesh soft and sweet. With their fins trimmed, they can be baked, grilled, poached or fried and could be filleted for stir-fries. Dabs, like plaice, are abundant down here between January and May. Do look out for them. Dinner is another one of those ham and baked potato suppers. My, they are good. The richly flavoured York ham is perfectly complemented by a crisp salad – in this case Cos lettuce hearts with lemony vinaigrette – and butter loaded jacket potatoes. I never tire of these meals.
Today’s walk into Hasting along the blustery promenade with St Leonards behind us ends with a food shopping spree. We want supper for tonight and New Year’s Eve tomorrow. I’m also craving some decent bread, so first stop is Hastings Old Town and Judges Bakery. I’d remembered this bakery from years ago, a visit soon after Craig Sams and his wife Josephine left London for a quieter life – Craig was the power behind Whole Earth Foods and later, with Jo, started Green&Blacks chocolate. The quiet life didn’t last long. Apart from devoting their energy to a mega allotment, Craig became very involved with the Soil Association and in 2005, they took over and transformed Judges Bakery and Tea Rooms at No 51 High Street. I suspect they are no longer involved in day-to-day running, but all Judges’ breads, cakes and dry goods are organic. A big, old-fashioned white loaf (Shipton Mill organic flour) with a good crust covered in sesame seeds was excellent. Obviously freshly baked – all done in the bakery at the back of the shop – and a cut above. It made wonderful toast, the seeds even nuttier. Supper ham then cheese and pickles with that lovely bread.
Yesterday’s shopping spree led us to M&S where The B bought a Gressingham duck in a cook-in bag. I didn’t realize the bag was part of the cooking instructions until I’d opened it. Fortunately I did it neatly, so it went back in happily with a few holes skewered in the skin with a fork so the fat could drain, removing the bag after an hour so the top could brown. To go with it, I peeled, diced and blanched potatoes. I would have fried them slowly with diced streaky bacon and chopped onion in some of the rendered fat but in our lovely loaned flat, the kitchen is so far from the roaring fire, I roasted them and jolly good they were, nicely crusty and salty. I added a couple of spoonfuls of Cumberland sauce to the gravy made in carefully strained fat from the duck with cabbage water. It’s always true, duck and orange is a winning combo. With buttered cabbage, this was a treat of a meal and the duck fed the two of us very generously with a few trimmings leftover for a sandwich.
We pack up in double quick time and leave after breakfast, back home to chaos. While we’ve been away, my builder Tom and his men have been in sanding the hall and kitchen floor and sanding and oiling the wooden work surface around my double sink and hob. The floor is great, looking bright and clean instead of grubbily ingrained with years of tread. The kitchen surround though is beyond tacky, it’s so sticky I can’t put anything on it, not for a nano second. The sink is filthy, it’s difficult to clean or use because if water splashes onto the tacky surface it will mark. So cooking on the hob is a bit tricky. Nevertheless, we have ham and eggs with toast after an hour of moving furniture around and doing the best to make some kind of cooking order. I rip down the Christmas lights and think about supper. The B has bought a piece of topside. He dusts it with English mustard powder and roasts it high (200C) for 20 minutes a pound plus a 10-minute rest before carving. It’s a tad overcooked but still extremely good with furrowed field roast potatoes and sprouts. I’m sorry to say I didn’t save the duck fat and bring it back to London to roast the potatoes, using olive oil instead. Furrowed field refers to deeply scored par-boiled potatoes, a sloppy version of hasselback potatoes, one of the stars of Alastair Little’s seminal Keep It Simple. It’s a Swedish recipe, raw potatoes cut half way through in slices across the top surface of each potato, so the slices fan as the potatoes roast. It’s a much-copied idea but its popularity originates from that book.
Spent the day trying to get a handle on where to put all the kitchen gear that I can’t put away in its proper home because the surface is still tacky. Heath Robinson to the fore, I improvise with old kiddies food mats and kitchen roll to save my surface. Have grandson Jago coming to stay the night, so defrost a pound of Cumberland cocktail sausages, dig out a packet of his favourite pasta, and begin making his sausage pasta. I also make a comforting lentil stew for the grown ups. Apart from pizza – margarita – that pasta dish is top favourite with both grandsons and they have come to associate it with coming here and both absolutely love it. I make it slightly differently every time and there is always a long conversation about which is the best version and why it is better. Little gourmets. The Lentil and Sausage Stew turns out brilliantly, even though I say it myself. I used cocktail sausages, good quality ones made with the Cumberland mix that I particularly like. Dishes like this are just the ticket for these chilly wintry nights and if you buy the big 750g jar of Navarrico lentils, which is what I used, there is plenty for another dish. I used my leftover lentils for a chunky Leek and Lentil Soup with Lemon and it did me for lunch for 3 days. Adding ham trimmings (yes, our Christmas York ham is finally coming to an end) with and a handful of baby spinach spinach stirred in, it would have done for supper.
Grandson so good and so enjoying himself, he stays for a second night. We walk dogs, he feeds them and I reheat his sausage pasta leftovers, augmenting it with some of my sausage leftovers and I have what’s left. Deep intake of breath when The B comes home with two fat veal cutlets. A lovely treat but I’d normally cook them on a griddle but daren’t due to tacky work surface, so instead cook them under a very hot overhead grill. It worked perfectly; about 3 minutes a side until seared and golden, then 5 min rest before eating with tinned French peas with little baby silverskin onions. Yum. Found half a red cabbage in the bottom of the fridge, so cooked it up with caraway and onion to make Caraway Red Cabbage. A good Fridge Standby; delicious with eggs and sausages in particular.
Very frustrating cooking in my kitchen at the moment, nothing in its right place and constantly juggling to make space and rigging up Heath Robinson devises to stop whatever I cook splashing and spoiling the unfinished work surfaces. Nevertheless I make a huge fridge tidy-leftovers soup, a rib-sticker of leeks and lentils with chunks of ham and the last from the 750g jar of Navarrico lentils. Made with pheasant stock imbued with lemon zest, flat leaf parsley and a splash of best olive oil, this Leek and Lentil Soup with Lemon is a feast of a lunch. Dinner is rosy slices of that leftover topside with Duchesse Potatoes and caraway red cabbage. Lovely plate.