The heat-wave is back, muggy and unpleasant, too hot and sweaty to sit in, so we’re all craving water to dip our feet into. My next door neighbours bought the deepest, biggest garden blow-up pool I’ve ever seen early in lock down and their children and friends jump in and out of it all day long. How I long to join them. It’s hard to concentrate on anything in this weather and the appetite has gone a bit odd, craving cold food and salads, chilled soups and easy, quick fish suppers. My kitchen is relatively cool and shady, French windows, side windows and a side return door mean a good breeze can circulate, specially if I leave the front door open. Garden salads with hard-boiled eggs are the order of the day or foods piled on garlicky bruschetta, diced tomato with a hint of anchovy being the favourite. I’m tending to cook first thing in the morning, whipping up simple, light stewy dishes that reheat well and go down with lots of green veg. Our beans are amazing. To begin with they yielded enough beans for the two of us every other day, now it’s up to every day and the courgettes are most prolific too. The week ends with a lovely night away staying at Hambleton Hall in Rutland.
Lazy Sunday and a pic-nic beckons but first I strip last night’s roast duck and make stock with a chopped onion, couple of carrots, few garlic cloves and sliced, end of leek greens from the freezer. I always save and freeze them for stock-making, they take little space and really contribute a lot. I leave the stock on a very low heat to simmer very gently all day. This time we are having an unstructured pic-nic – my favourite; so loaf of gorgeously fresh Hedone brown (from www.bayley-sage.co.uk) and a sharp, serrated, white handled Greek pic-nic knife for slicing it, unsalted Italian butter in a little chill box, egg mayo made with chopped hard-boiled egg, Dijon mustard, chives and a squeeze of lemon, pack of wafer-thin sliced Italian cold cuts, chunk of Cheshire cheese, a bottle of beer and a bottle of white wine. We have back packs for the bounty, an old Indian bedspread to lounge on (anyone remember Barkers or was it Derry and Toms, that had a bargain basement selling, amongst other things, Indian bedspreads for £3; it’s one of those lovingly repaired with a second that’s even more decrepit). Also, a linen table cloth and napkins (I like to do it properly). I have water and grub for Red. We go often to Richmond Park and have many favourite and quite different pic-nic spots. Today we head for a clutch of lazy trees that resemble a little olive grove, the trees once blown over in a storm and re-birthed with l-shaped trunks that run along the ground and then shoot up. We laze happily napping and reading the papers until a young family of 3 very young children, their dad, his girlfriend and another woman, maybe his sister, arrive and almost park next to us, creeping closer and closer, seriously encroaching. They must be regulars here because they treat it like their own as if we were invisible. Soon we are, retreating away to another favourite spot under a tall oak tree with one of many petrified trees adjacent, a lovely tree for smalls to make a camp and climb over. Back home to the most delectable smell of darkly coloured duck stock. I strain it and leave the debris to cool to pick over later for Red. I cook up some chicken that I’ve been defrosting in the fridge. I want to take it with us for The B’s mum’s supper when we visit for a glass of wine on her front patch. The dish starts, as so many do, with softened onion, adding floured strips of chicken, rosemary, white wine and black olives, enriched with leftover gravy from that duck. We get home hot and bothered and want to watch Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, so I rustle up a fridge and stores supper; grilled sausages with a delicious slop of white beans stirred with roasted red pepper, cherry toms and basil (White Beans, Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Stew) with a handful of French beans from the garden. Delicious.
Used some of the stiff jellied duck stock to augment the leftovers from last night’s pretty bean stew to make soup for lunch. At the moment The B’s Chambers aren’t officially open but he’s driving in each day and working in his room, taking soup or a salad for lunch. This soup – do try it, if you have leftovers of the bean stew – was incredibly good, thick and creamy and surprisingly interesting. For supper, I make Chicken with White Wine, Rosemary and Black Olives again with duck stock and wet polenta. Boy it was good. I always add humungous amounts of butter and grated Parmesan to sloppy wet polenta but before it’s added, pour half of the molten polenta into a dish, so it can set hard ready to be oiled and fried. If you attempt to do it with leftover butter and cheesed polenta, it will start to break up when it’s fried. It’s not the end of the world if that happens, but it’s just not very stable and you don’t get that crusty giving onto soft objective. I’ll be frying slabs of the hard polenta as a raft for tomorrow’s beef ragu with lashings of grated Parmesan and shredded basil. Can’t wait.
I’m up early chopping onions and carrots, fishing out the defrosted minced beef from the fridge to make Beef Ragu with Basil and Polenta. The great thing about an early start in this heat wave means I won’t have to think about food and cooking again until the night air has kicked in and it’s a bit cooler.
Again I’m up early, wanting to make a quick soup for The B to take to work. Another Cucumber and Pea Soup it is. I have a whole fillet of cod from Newlyn in my freezer and glancing round the kitchen I note that I have avocadoes and tomatoes in abundance. It is hot and airless again, so I’m after a quick and simple supper with minimal cooking. The result is Lemon Roast Cod with Tomato and Avocado Salsa. The chunky salsa is quick and easy to make and sits happily for an hour or so, covered in the cool, allowing flavours to develop. The fish roasts in 10 minutes or so. A healthy, summer supper to eat outside.
I’m not sure why but my Grub Street facsimile edition of Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen has wormed its way off the book shelf to the top of a pile of must-look-again old favourites. Today I want to cook the lamb I’ve defrosted and I’m vaguely thinking of Mrs David’s quoorma curry but the heat wave puts kebabs in my head. I’m tempted by her Moroccan brochettes flavoured with cumin, turmeric, ginger with finely chopped garlic and onion. To go with it I am looking for a way of ringing the changes of our almost daily diet of French beans and courgettes. Cous cous, I remembered, time for cous cous. I flavoured it with lemon and olive oil, a pinch of saffron, bulked with chickpeas and toasted pinenuts, adding blanched beans and courgette. This combo would go with almost any food, from chunks of salty feta cheese, to chicken, even fish. Leftovers were good cold the next day, the cous cous lubricated with leftover cold Another Cucumber and Pea Soup (a huge hit).
The B has been booked by his mum to take her for two hospital appointments at noon, so decides to take the day off. I manage to get us a late lunch outside table booking at The River Café on what turns out to be the hottest day of the year. At 1pm I’m walking Red in the shade in Chiswick House when The B calls and says the Chelsea and Westminster has decided to hang on to Liz for tests. It doesn’t sound good, so I unilaterally decide to cancel our lunch. At 2.30pm The B rings again, he is parked up in Hollywood Road outside Santa Lucia Restaurant. There are tables in the traffic-curtailed road, do I fancy driving over and having lunch. Of course I do. I’m there in a trice and soon we are tucking into insalata burrata and a glass of water, lamenting we weren’t sat back from the Thames at Hammersmith sipping a glass of one of their delectable chilled white wines as we ponder their menu of food for the gods. C&W decide to keep Liz in overnight for observation, so a worried, wearied B comes home. For supper we have
Newlyn cod from the freezer, roasted with halved big fat tomatoes and Minted Pea Puree. Such a lovely plate of food.
Today we are supposed to be setting off for a night at Hambleton Hall in Rutland, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for years and years, way back to when I was a restaurant critic in the eighties and early nineties. We are taking Red with us and are booked into what turns out to be a charming self-contained little dwelling adjacent to the Hall appropriately called the Croquet Pavilion it abuts. Our plan had been to set off in good time with a pic-nic, arriving at 3pm, the official book in time, for a swim and general relax. There is doubt now, whether we can go at all because of the uncertainty of The B’s mum’s health, so there is much running around, liasing with J’s sister and niece who are staying in Liz’s house over who’s doing what when. It eventually becomes clear that The B can be of no other help at about tea-time, so we sneak off for the night, arriving at Hambleton closer to 7 than we would have liked. It’s a lovely evening and we celebrate getting away from London with a glass or two of champagne, shower and change for our dinner slot. It’s all terribly well organised. We are allocated a drinks time with plenty of social distancing space on their huge terrace at the back of the Hall. It overlooks Hambleton and Rutland Water in the distance across beautiful understated gardens, mature trees and shrubs swaying in the breeze, across wild grassland giving onto grazing sheep and the Waters. It is so peaceful. We are presented with our own menu, specially printed up with our names. There’s a Spanish influence to some dishes, with gazpacho, chorizo and Iberico pork (owners Stefa and Tim Hart include the Barrafina chain and Quo Vadis in their family group) but mainly the style is rooted in local ingredients and interesting interpretations of classically inspired dishes. Hence chicken liver parfait with green tomato chutney, roast Merrifield duck with peanut puree, Napa cabbage and lime leaf sauce, and loin of new season Launde Farm lamb, rosemary puree, confit garlic and lamb belly. Just reading the menu again makes me yearn to return, it really is very tempting with a good choice of ingredients and dishes. The B decides on slow-cooked octopus, ink pasta, chorizo, lemongrass and ginger sauce, followed by the lamb. I chose tartlet of Lincolnshire eel, potato, watercress and lovage, a delicate pastry loaded with delectable morsels, wolfed down with unexpected speed. I followed with Roast Presa Iberica Pork, apple and fennel. Both lamb and pork were neatly sliced and arranged in a fallen stack which worked well. Regretfully, we couldn’t manage desserts but I dream still of Hambleton’s tiramisu (which I saw being devoured at another table). The wine list is suitably impressive and there’s a pleasingly eccentric sommelier on hand to advise. We sloped off seeking shade and release Red for a wander with an Armagnac in hand. That was probably a mistake. The next morning I knew it was.