It doesn’t seem to matter how early I get up, how well organised I am and how ahead I am with the cooking, when there are people for Sunday lunch, I always fail to get on top of things. I dream of sitting decorously awaiting the guests but it never happens. First job is always laying the table. Psychologically it helps to have that done and may explain why my mother always set the breakfast table on weekdays before she went to bed. No bolting down a slice of toast for us, we always left the house for school full; first cereal, or porridge in winter, followed by something cooked, even if it was bacon with fried bread or a poached egg. Today, there are only four of us for lunch but I’m cooking as though I have at least eight people coming. I thought I was ahead; I’d made the soup, roasted tomato halves and made salsa verde. I’d even made pastry for treacle tart. Here I am though, faffing and failing to get ‘on top’. There are two chickens to stuff with garlic, thyme and lemon and line up with a bottle of white wine, a smear of butter and splash of olive oil, salt and pepper over the skin. They finally go in the oven at noon. I prepare potatoes for diamond jackets (see My Week In Food 14 Oct), laying them out on tin foil with a smear of olive oil to avoid them oxidising. I blind bake a pastry case to fill with the humungous amount of breadcrumbs a treacle tart needs, a job I’d done a few days before with a specially bought white loaf. While the pastry case is still hot, I pile in the crumbs and have ready two tins of golden syrup sitting in bowls of boiling water. This ensures the syrup becomes liquid rather than sticky and slides off the spoon, melting into the crumbs quickly and easily. Last job, after I’m bathed and dressed, is topping and tailing green beans. The menu is beetroot and Bramley apple borscht with chipotle (see recipes) followed by thyme scented roast chicken with white wine gravy, roast tomato halves, green beans, diamond jacket potatoes and salsa verde, with treacle tart and vanilla ice cream for pudding. The chicken and ‘green sauce’ as Matthew, The B’s son, calls it, were specially requested by him. The lunch was his treat, an occasion to introduce us (well, his dad really) to his new girlfriend. She’s a light eater compared with us, but her eyes lit up when she saw the treacle tart and wolfed down two helpings with the gorgeous ice cream The B had bought. It was his first visit to Foubert’s (www.fouberts.co.uk), Chiswick’s famous Italian ice cream parlour now on Turnham Green Terrace but previously, since the late seventies, on Chiswick High Road. The latter premises, now High Road House of the Soho House group, was run as a functional all day Italian restaurant with the ice cream parlour by the front door, the hotel upstairs with a weird nightclub in the basement. I remember the club being gloomy and wood panelled but it was much frequented by my teenage sons and their friends, the only place they could go after pub hours. Anyway, it turns out that is was one of my sons who told The B that Foubert’s still make the best ice cream in Chiswick despite the outbreak of trendier places.
First job this morning is stripping the chickens from yesterday’s lunch to make stock (with a chopped onion, keeping the skin to colour the stock, couple of carrots, garlic from the cavity but discarding the thyme that is now woody) for the freezer. It’s always a gratifying sight to open the door and see canisters of home made stock that you know is jellied and robustly flavoured, ready to turn into soup, risotto or sauce. I use some of the leftover chicken to make a thickly loaded gratinee pie for supper (see Recipes). The topping is made with breadcrumbs from the freezer liberally laced with finely grated grana Padano. This combo makes a deliciously crisp and golden gratinee. We eat it with sprouts, quickly boiled and well-drained.
Out for dinner tonight at the Garrick in Covent Garden. Had six wonderful native oysters, big, fleshy and a wonderful taste of the sea. I always have the first couple with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon, then progress to a splash of Tabasco, finishing with finely chopped shallot vinegar with tarragon but the latter wasn’t on offer tonight. I also like a chaser of bread and butter; at the Garrick, lovely very fresh, slightly floppy brown bread. Main course was a wonderful ham pie with a very good pastry crust and some kind of roast potatoes, the name of which I’ve forgotten. Delicious wines chosen by The B.
I love leftovers and tonight it’s a leftovers supper; the remains of moist, white wine and lemon-imbued roast chicken from Sunday, very gooey, intensely sweet roast tomatoes, snappy fine green beans, minty petits pois, creamy, herby salsa verde to smear over the tomatoes and small red potatoes quickly turned into diamond jackets to slather with butter. Best sort of supper.
Tonight I’m invited to join The B outside the Ned for his Chambers Christmas party; in old language a dinner dance. I’ve heard of the achingly trendy Ned, but this is my first visit. There is a fenced off queue to the right of the main entrance which I ignore, marching up to one of several liveried bouncers. Inside it is shocking, a real surprise. The place is enormous and divided into sections, all huge and all stuffed to the gunnels with braying bray. It is so noisy, so seemingly chaotic, that I fear I will never find The B. Turns out he is stuck outside, waiting for me there. One of the many waiters nabs him and guides us past more bray into other areas of bray; this place is extraordinarily huge, then to the lifts to take us up to the sixth floor. We catch up over a glass of fizz, then join the pre-dinner party before being seated in what I imagine used to be a board room in the Ned’s previous life as a bank. We’ve chosen our food in advance, and it turns out that home cured salmon, beetroot, horseradish and dill is a popular choice. It’s jolly good, a thick piece of salmon that slices easily and is full of flavour. Our main course is a pale and interesting plate of sensitively cooked turbot with scallop and prawn mousse, fennel and fish veloute and plenty of Kiwi Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2014 to wash it down. With a suitably gooey sticky toffee pud with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream, it was a very good meal. I’m always impressed when banquet catering goes off without a hitch and this did. We didn’t stay for cheese and port or dancing to the little band I noticed out of the corner of my eye at the brightly lit drinks reception.
I should have been packing an overnight bag for Paris this morning but thanks to a prolonged rail strike and the danger of last minute Eurostar cancellations, put paid to that. I checked back to what I wrote last time we had to cancel a Paris trip at the last moment – on Friday 15 March – when the City was gripped by French passport staff strikes and gilets jaunes protests. The story is remarkably similar; ‘Friday was supposed to be the start of a weekend in Paris, late arrival at Gare du Nord and dinner at nearby Brasserie du Nord. We were on red alert all week, worried by Eurostar news to ticket holders that French passport control staff were on work to rule and there were severe delays. Every day the Eurostar website reported lists of train cancellations followed by a warning against travelling, to only travel if absolutely essential. On Thursday I ‘phoned the press office and was advised in no uncertain terms to postpone my trip. Later that day, Brasserie du Nord e mailed to say they couldn’t honour our booking. We decided to leave a final decision about whether to travel until Friday. I spoke to the press office again who said that delays out of Gare du Nord were now four or five hours and seats booked on specific trains were not being honoured’.
So, very much in the mood for comfort grub in front of the fire tonight. I cooked a favourite spicy aubergine stew, slippery onion and canned tomatoes, thinking it would be good with pasta. I also made cottage pie with mince beef from the freezer, defrosted in the oven while I cooked the aubergine. The cottage pie was one of the best even though I say it myself. I had bought the best minced steak and cooked it with onion softened first then finished with a splash of balsamic vinegar. To this I added a large diced Portobello mushroom, a couple of finely chopped carrot simmering everything with the remains of a bottle of wine and chicken stock. I simmered it, covered, over a low heat giving the occasional stir, for about 30 minutes then simmered it uncovered until it was juicy rather than wet. I left it to cool in a gratin dish then piled mashed potato flavoured with the juice of half a lemon, swirling the top with a fork. After 30 minutes in a hot oven (wise to place the dish on a shallow roasting tin) the top was crusty, the juices bubbling round the side. Sprouts and Worcestershire sauce were the perfect accompaniments.
Up early and into the wild West End for a stab at Christmas shopping. Some success but the later the morning got, the heavier the crowds and the less we felt like continuing. From Piccadilly to Knightsbridge then a swift walk to South Ken, seduced by thoughts of oysters at Bibendum’s Oyster Bar. I used to come here a lot during Simon Hopkinson’s reign but haven’t been back since Claude Bosi took over a few years ago. The Bar remains pretty much the same; outside tables to the right and the left of the wonderful flower stall then through the big glass doors to what was the Michelin showroom now set with many more tables spreading right across the floor. We were lucky to get one against the right hand wall, so could watch the comings and goings at the Bar proper and gawp at the steady flow of people who just marched straight through the diners to the far end of the room and an entrance of the Conran Shop. I think it’s time to rethink this. Within fifteen minutes, all the tables were taken and we still didn’t have our Bloody Marys. Service remained useless – no-one knew which oysters on the list was native and which was rock – and very slow. The temporary manager on loan from elsewhere apologised and eventually we shared a plate of freezing crevettes grises served over chipped ice. Why? Was it to make the portion more impressive? Another delay and our lobster rolls arrived. I’ve never had one before and understand from The B, it’s a native speciality from New England, a hot dog-style bun stuffed with sweet, tender lobster meat in lemony mayo. The ratio of stuffing to roll is crucial and it’s always served with very crisp fries. The Bibendum version is very good, the filling generous, loaded with tender and sweet lobster held in a well-seasoned mayo and piled into an egg-glazed brioche roll cut in half on the diagonal. The frites too were plentiful. A great plate.
Before we left the house, I’d defrosted a lone pheasant, another lucky discovery of my freezer de-frost. I roasted it (in small roasting tin with cup of water; 10 minutes on each side, 10 minutes breast-side up and 10 minute rest)and served it with bread sauce, more sprouts and gravy made with redcurrant jelly added to the pan juices with a hint of flour to thicken them.