A week of freezing temperatures, ice and snow, so hearty soups, stews and simple suppers are the order of the day. Don’t forget Moules Mariniere, one of the simplest, fastest, best value treats I know.
Ocado comes knocking again and we’ve seriously over ordered on carrots. I don’t mind because it’s surprising how often they come in handy, in spag bol and stew, for example, two dishes I’m making a lot at the moment. As it happens, I’m looking around (again) for a soup idea, so decide to roast a load of carrots along with tomatoes that are definitely in need of cooking. I peeled the carrots but didn’t bother to remove the tomato skin, liquidizing both together with chicken stock made with a cube. The combination was a surprisingly successful mix of sweet and sweet/sour, rich and interesting but on a whim added a chunk of Greek feta I happened to have in the fridge and my goodness it turned a stunningly good simple soup into a fantastic one. I made so much Roast Carrot and Tomato Soup with Feta, it will do us for a few al desko lunches during the week. Dinner was a lazy treat from the freezer, duck confit roasted to a crisp with M&S frites in a box and tinned French peas. Perfect tv dinner (watching last of Bridgerton; we hadn’t realised it continued after the wedding).
When I’m cooking or tidying around in the kitchen, I usually listen to Radio 4. Invariably I catch the book of the week and today is the first episode of The Fall, John Preston’s book about Robert Maxwell. My desk at Time Out, after we moved from Kings Cross to Covent Garden, was alongside the literary editor and opposite the theatre critic. For quite a long time, the lit ed was John Preston so there was no way I was going to miss this serialisation. Henry Goodman was a brilliant narrator with a very good booming Maxwell voice. I never came into contact with Maxwell but did work briefly as restaurant critic on the London Daily News, his attempt to challenge the Evening Standard. Supper is foraged from the recesses of the deep freeze; a roast pheasant I plucked myself, with roast potatoes (boiled, unpeeled, in salted water for about 15 minutes, cooled, skinned, cut in chunks and given the rough treatment by scraping a fork across the top, then lined up on a shallow roasting tin splashed with goose fat leftover from Christmas. I roast at 200C/gas mark 4 for 30 minutes or so). We have the roast with highly seasoned bread sauce, the sauce milk simmered in advance with a few cloves, peppercorns, pinch salt, bay leaf and diced shallot. I always get ahead with bread sauce, the seasoned milk then only needs to be stirred with breadcrumbs and enriched with cream or butter just before serving.
I can’t help myself; if there has been a roast for supper, I’ll be boiling up the bones for stock as soon as the kettle boils for the day’s first cuppa. Later in the day, when the stock is strained, I’ll be stripping the carcass for scraps of meat for Red. She likes the carrot too. I cook lambs mince with onion, carrot, tomato and stock as listen to episode 3 of The Fall, John Preston’s Maxwell saga serializing on Radio 4, the book propped up on the kitchen table. It’s mesmerising and seems to be over before it’s started but I have the makings of Lamb, Spinach and Potato Pie under way as Woman’s Hour gets under way. I’m adding a hint of chilli to this ragu and deciding to top my pie with super-thin slices of quickly blanched potato rather than mash. This is a useful ruse if you haven’t got or don’t want to eat too much potato as a couple of potatoes make a lot of thin slices. Sliding the spoon through the crusty potato carapace is very pleasing, another tv supper; it’s rare meals are otherwise in these dreary Lock Down evenings.
If there are a couple of aubergine in the fridge veg drawer, I know they’ll soon be turned into a delicious treat. This time, they’re fried with spicy Moroccan ras al hanoot, cooked into a lovely pasta supper. Casarecce with Spicy Aubergine is my idea of the perfect TV dinner and the sauce re-heats perfectly.
Sad news recently of the death of Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately and most particularly about her trailblazing book, Cooking in a Bedsitter, first published in 1963 and again in 2008. Before I wrote the Dinner Tonight column in The Times, I wrote a similar quick-cook, after work column for the Evening Standard. On one occasion, prompted by recipes in KW’s book, I came up with a recipe by The Dish, (‘so called because my flat-mate and I cooked almost nothing else for nearly two years’). Mine was made with lamb rather than beef and I cooked it up with onion and fennel, seasoning it with dried oregano and fresh parsley, add frozen peas at the end. My latest version of The Dish (inspired by Katharine Whitehorn) turned out so well I shall be making it again. Rather than adding small potatoes to the pot, I served it with my super-quick jacket potatoes (recipe: Lamb Chops, Diamond Jackets and Minted Pea Puree). My recipe in the Standard prompted Katharine Whitehorn to write to me, saying how much she liked my column. One day I will find that letter.
As I listened to the finale of The Fall, John Preston’s mesmerising account of the life of Robert Maxwell, I decided to make another soup. It started out as So Simple Leek and Potato Soup but swerved into something else when I added spinach and decided to liquidize the contents of the pan. The result was a delicate green puree which I served with a pretty garnish of feta cheese. This favourite cheese is my new soup add-on, bringing salty, creamy flavour to endless soups. If served as a crumbled garnish, as I did for Spinach, Leek and Potato Soup, the little white scraps melt on the tongue addictively. The Barrister thought he’d ordered a seafood box home delivery from Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish (www.therockfish.co.uk) for tonight’s ‘date night’ but it turns out we will be getting that next Friday. So, craving fish, I’m happy to stand in queue (the new way to shop) at my fishmonger (www.coventgardenfishmongers.co.uk). They have huge dover soles (but not Cornish sole – the fish formerly known as megrim sole – still is in my family) hidden under a slurry of ice chips, so I splash out and buy two, plus a side of their superb naturally smoked haddock, a net of mussels and couple of thick fillets of hake (also Cornish). We have the Dovers (skinned and roasted with butter, smidgen of oil and squeeze of lemon) with M&S frites (the current favourite chips for the freezer) and peas. Quite gorgeous.
After a long walk in the freezing cold, it was a joy to come back to Moules Mariniere. I’d done the advance cooking, softening the diced shallot and garlic in olive oil, adding a generous splash of white wine and some of the chopped flat leaf parsley, so it was on the table in minutes, wolfed down with crusty Hedone bread on the side. Supper is another favourite; Devilled Kidneys on Toast. Next time I make this favourite dish, I plan to spread the toast with mustard instead of serving it on the side. And guess what, we ate as we watched The Dig, another treat from John Preston. (Wish The Tony Elliott, our old TO boss, was still around to enjoy The Fall and The Dig). Sigh.