I’ve just heard someone on the radio talking about post lock-down early Christmas. Everyone, apparently, is rushing out to buy their tree and go mad with Christmas lights. Wreaths are even more of a big thing. It’s certainly happened around where I live; almost every house, shop and hotel is way ahead with Christmas decorations. There is one house, in a street just off Chiswick Lane and very close to the Hogarth roundabout, causing traffic jams. Every year for years, the decorations have been OTT but this year the front garden and front of the house is in overload; they must have got a generator to supply all those lights. I’ve ordered my turkey, checked my plum puddings are safe and sound and started on Christmas shopping. One of my grandsons is getting a waffle machine and I’ve had a lovely time at Nisbets (www.nisbets.co.uk) augmenting the gift. I love a visit to this chef’s haven and was very touched to receive a humungous pack of tray-sized doilies (as lusted after in our Provence rental earlier in the year) delivered to the door courtesy of The B. I’ll have to make an awful lot of mince tarts to fill one of those. The preoccupation this week is our first lunch party next Sunday. We are six, eating outside as befits tier 2, hoping our fearsomely expensive crook heaters will be replaced and fitted in time.
It’s cold and damp, I have leeks and potatoes, so for the millionth time make So Simple Leek and Potato Soup. It takes 10 minutes to prepare, about 10 minutes to cook and doesn’t rely on stock or anything fancy; just potato, leek, water, salt and a generous knob of butter at the end. With thick chunks of Mrs Appleby’s rich and strong, crumbly Cheshire cheese (The B’s favourite, which he picks up from www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk in Covent Garden) and a sampling of Orchard Chutney, that’s a great lunch. I am so pleased with this chutney (from Thane Prince’s book Perfect Preserves) that I plan to make a second batch tomorrow. I want plenty for us and plenty to give away. It reminds me of Branston pickle but isn’t as sweet with a subtle but interesting back taste of garlic, chilli and ginger. Supper is a real treat, comfort food par excellence bangers and mash with red wine onion gravy, English mustard, Worcester sauce and peas. Can’t believe we devour 10 sausages – big, meaty Cumberland sausages, Macken’s specials (www.mackenbrothers.co.uk) but I’ve set aside two of the 12 bought. Somehow I know they’ll come in handy, and they do.
Every now and again (and I’m I have some cooking as I type) I make a batch of ragu (or spag bol mix as we used to call it) for the freezer. I have defrosted one batch – pork this time but pretty much my standard recipe – Lamb Ragu – and decided to fry up chunks of those held back sausages and add them to the mix. With leftover mashed potato on top, it became Pork Cottage Pie for supper. I also sliced and picked the last of the meat from Saturday night’s roast duck and made stock with the carcass. The smell as the stock simmers gently is amazing; duck really goes on giving with the most fantastic stock, the bones enriched with a chopped onion, couple of chopped carrots, leek trimmings (saved from yesterday soup; I’ve been known to freeze washed leek trimmings because they are so good for stock), garlic, a few peppercorns and pinch of salt. Cooled and skimmed, it’s frozen in 500ml cartons.
We’ve already had cottage pie this week, so instead of Roast Duck Shepherd’s Pie I prep mise en place for Duck Noodles made with a bundle of pale oriental wheat noodles, cucumber, leek, red pepper, chilli, ginger, carrot and some of the incredibly well-flavoured duck stock. With chopped coriander added after the duck, right at the end, this is a huge hit and highly recommended. The recipe could be used as a template with chicken leftovers and at a pinch, with stock made from a cube.
Every morning for the last week I’ve been wondering what to do about the mass of little green figs on my fig tree. Most of the leaves have fallen off but the stems of the straggly ‘tree’ are laden with fruit. I can’t in all honesty call it a tree. I was given a woody cutting from a very prolific, well-established tree some years ago and told to plant it in a pot to restrict its root growth. Amazingly, 8 or 9 years later, it’s still in it, having now established itself, sending roots through the base of the pot, putting out more branches and producing more fruit. This year the little tree has excelled itself and the fruit has been succulent and richly flavoured. It’s a variety called Brown Turkey. I solicited advice on Instagram and recommeneded to pick all the fruit to avoid sapping the plant’s energy. I couldn’t bring myself to chuck the little figs and wondered about pickling them or making jam. In the end, I found a Greek recipe for Fig Spoon Fruit which I adapted to my 750g cull, soaking and simmering them in several changes of water and then in a lemon and vanilla-infused syrup, bottling them in wide-necked jars. I haven’t actually tried them yet but have high hopes.
Hurrah, today is the end of lock-down. I dare say every restaurant in the land is reaping the benefit, I certainly hope so, but The B is working late on a case and my fridge has an excess of eggs, so I whip up an omelette the minute he walks through the door. I did a bit of preparation in advance, by softening young spinach with a soak in boiling water, slicing a few pitted black olives and dicing half a soft and creamy Ragstone goat cheese. For Frittata with Spinach, Black Olives and Ragstone, I use 8 eggs and finish the big, thick omelette under the grill, a brief flash, until the eggs puff and just set. We have it cut from the pan in big wedges like slicing a cake, with M&S frites, the sort in a box, ready in record time. Boy the combo was good. I was hoping there might be leftovers to have cold for my lunch tomorrow with a splash of Thai sweet chilli sauce but we ate the lot.
On Sunday we are testing out the new outside heaters with a regulation 6 back-yard lunch party with social distancing. The B has tracked down a couple of Abigail’s Party-style plate/dish warmers for the middle of the table to keep the veg warm and the menu is smoked salmon mini blinis with a glass of celebratory champagne then a humungous Boeuf Bourguignonne, boiled potatoes, carrots and peas. Cheese to follow. It’s only Thursday but I begin preparations for the beef stew, simmering red wine with aromatics, carrots, onion and celery, then marinating the trimmed beef over night. I prepare button mushrooms and shallots, so all I need to do is fry off the beef, assemble the dish and then cook it properly on Saturday morning. I have far too many button mushrooms, so search out some chicken from the freezer to make one of those comforting, creamy chicken stews that go with whatever you happen to have, from pasta to mash or greens. It starts by softening a finely chopped onion in a knob of butter softened in a splash of olive oil, adding garlic if you wish, stirring in the wiped mushrooms, tossing around until damp looking and then adding floured strips of chicken thigh, cooking until nicely golden, then adding a glass of white wine if you have it, stirring briskly to to knock the flour off the chicken and thicken the wine, adding sufficient chicken stock to make a rich, creamy sauce. Add cream if you like and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Garnish with chopped flat leaf parsley or finely snipped chives. Good with green veg or potatoes any which way.
Oh how nice, we’re out tonight, celebrating lock-down freedom at Vinoteca on Devonshire Road. It’s the perfect local in my view, possible to just call in for a drink at the bar (well it was, before all the restrictions), tables are well spaced, staff friendly and efficient and the menu is always seasonally tempting with favourites like steak (bavette) and particularly good hand cut chips but always several interesting vegetarian choices. I always order Cornish hake when I see it (most is shipped out live in special lorries bound for Spanish markets) and tonight it comes with cauliflower puree (a favourite with me) over kale and Kalamata olive sauce.
I get The B to lift the stunningly heavy Le Creuset now full to capacity into a hot oven to cook the Boeuf Bourguinonne. I have skinny, long carrots to serve with the stew but also a big bag of bog standard carrots in the fridge. Memories of making Carrot Borscht begin to surface, so I hunt down the recipe and make a huge vat of it. I really recommend this recipe, it’s spicy, acidic, yet sweet, creamy and thick and utterly delicious. It’s cheap too and easy to make. It will be perfect for al desko lunches next week. Earlier in the week, I decided we needed a post lock-down treat and booked lunch at Sam’s Riverside, a favourite place on the river just beyond Hammersmith Bridge. There are outside tables with jet flame tall heaters and we walk there with Red. She’s a regular here and had her lunch under the table while we scoffed New England Clam Chowder with a Bacon Crumb (The B) and truly wonderful Severn and Wye smoked salmon blinis (bite-size and not enough of them but I always order Hedone (brown) here, so it took over). Sam’s kitchen cooks fish perfectly and today was no exception; roast Cornish hake with Broccoli spigarello (raw and inedible but very pretty on the plate) with roasted fennel, celeriac and tarragon veloute; a lovely plateful but I was glad to be able to scrounge a few chips that came with Sam’s very good cheeseburger). Out of curiosity we tried Hedone mince pies. At £7.50 for 3 they were a rip off; not enough mincemeat and overly sugary pastry. We raced home to light the fire to thaw out; boy it turned very cold. Who’d of thought we’d want supper after that lovely meal but Nduja Baked Beans with Poached Eggs and Grated Cheddar went down very well.