This was written before Coronavirus took over our lives and I’ve been hanging on to it wondering whether to post it and whether to stop writing my Week in Food. It’s actually 27 March today and for the first time since our lives were turned upside down – around the time this Week in Food was written – that I’ve felt like writing anything, even e mails to friends. The feedback, though, from social media prompted the start of a Daily Soup Recipe and you can read them and many others in the recipe section. Like everyone, my gang of three is in lockdown and although I feared a life of spaghetti and tinned tomatoes, it is proving relatively easy to get almost any food one desires. I have ordered fish from Cornwall, meat from a local butcher and most other food needs are being supplied by local shops. Like many, I’ve discovered family-run small shops are a better bet than the supermarkets. So, perhaps I am back writing again. Do keep in touch and keep washing those hands.
There is soon to be a new boiler installed in the flat where we stay in St Leonards and the plumber came this morning to measure up, forcing us to be up and about in good time. After he’d gone, we walked along the seafront with our backs to Hastings, walking towards Bexhill. I love this coastline, the pebbly beach divided by wooden groins in various states of repair, this morning the waves crashing against them. The sun is bright and though cold, it’s jacket rather than coat weather and we walk for about an hour, turn and share a beer at www.goatledge.com.
It’s mild enough to sit outside and as usual people stop to admire Red and I take a photo of the licensing credit above the door to send to son Henry (the man behind this enterprising café and ice cream bar is a friend dating back to their days at The Ruskin School of Art, Oxford). ‘Oh yes’ replies Henry, ‘I know that writing.’ We buy a few odds and ends for the flat and two sorts of mushrooms and I cook the dabs we’d bought yesterday – dusted with flour and fried for a couple of minutes a side, eaten with a squeeze of lemon and slices of still super-fresh sesame crusted loaf from Judge’s, the super-good Hastings baker. We have a good clear up and set off for London, back in time to get ourselves sorted for tomorrow. I’d taken chicken thigh portions out of the deep freeze on Friday before we left for St Leonards, thinking I’d do something with them for supper tonight. When I buy chicken portions and sausages for the freezer, I always freeze them separately in the bag they will end up in, then either store them flat or shake the bag to loosen each piece separately frozen. It means not having to defrost the whole lot when part of the pack is required and single rather than a clump defrosts quickly. Chicken and Mushroom Stew with Rosemary is mindlessly forgiving to prepare, resulting in one of those pleasant but interestingly flavoured comfort suppers. Finely chopped rosemary and a few sheets of prosciutto give a vaguely Italian note to the white wine juices and chestnut mushrooms colour the gravy a deep dark colour. We eat it with roast parsnips – cut into equal-sized pieces, par-boiled for 5 minutes then roasted in a smear of olive oil – frozen peas and mashed potato.
Rachel Roddy (www.racheleats.wordpress.com) is one of my favourite cookery writers, discovered via her weekly column for the Guardian about living and cooking in Rome (with her small son and Sicilian husband). This morning she posted a photo of celery, ready-blanched and laid out in a gratin dish with pats of butter en route for Jane Grigson’s celery gratin. It reminded me that I had leeks in the fridge and no plans for supper and that photo prompted me to revisit an old favourite, a brasserie dish usually made with chicory that I’ve been cooking for more years than I care to recall. Over the years I’ve changed and adapted the recipe to suit what I had; perhaps using Cheddar in the cheese sauce and torn ham with the leeks. The greatest change, though, was the realisation that it is very difficult to cut leeks wrapped in ham through a thick, creamy cheese sauce. So, I steam the leeks already cut into bite size chunks and then wrap them in whatever ham takes my fancy or whatever it is I have to hand. This time I have a pack of prosciutto bought as part of my bounty for topping pizzas and it was a pleasure to wrap this flimsy, floppy ham around the steamed leek pieces. This time I seasoned the milk for the béchamel sauce with onion, bay and peppercorns and it had a noticeable effect. I also used a slightly sweet gruyere cheese that gives results in a springy, voluptuous sauce. My gratinee topping for Leek Gratin with Prosciutto was breadcrumbs and Parmesan with the last of the gruyere and it was a real pleasure as the spoon cracked through the crisp carapace giving on to the treasure below.
Today as the news about the Virus begins to bite, I am glued to the radio and only left the house to take the dog out, too preoccupied to go food shopping so supper was a hunt through my meagre supplies. In an almost empty freezer I discover 3 fat Cumberland sausages and in the fridge, half a chorizo, 2 field mushrooms and a few carrots. With an onion, a few tomatoes and half a jar of creamy white haricot beans, I begin to conjure what turns into Sausage, Chorizo and White Bean Stew. I send a note to my old boss Tony Elliott; he has an on-going jibe with me about my love of chorizo (he once sent me a photo of him eating it in Lisbon). Anyway, this is a fork and spoon supper to remember.
Tonight we are booked to see Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly at the Colosseum. Afterwards, we were supposed to be having dinner at the St Martin’s Lane Hotel, looking forward to trying food writer Gizzi Erskine’s restaurant there. When we arrived, the restaurant receptionist greeted us with the news that we had 10 minutes. There was no explanation. 10 minutes for what, to find our table and order, 10 minutes to eat our food? We could see the room was dark and uninviting with only a few tables occupied, so turned on our heels and left. It wasn’t that late, only around 10.30pm and they supposedly serve theatre suppers, a point discussed when the table was booked (saying we would be post Madame B). Anyway, it is fortunate for us The B is a member of a club around the corner (The Garrick, since you ask) and we were soon tucking into lamb cutlets, chips and salad and jolly good it was too.
I feel in need of brain food, so dip into the fishmonger www.coventgardenfishmongers.co.uk for inspiration. I leave with 2 Manx kippers (the best), a thick double fillet of cod, a pale yellow fillet of smoked haddock and net of mussels. The fish is for fish pie tomorrow but tonight I plan on moules mariniere. My plan goes awry when I discover the net has several mussels with broken shells, so start thinking of ways I can make what I’m left with feed the two of us. The remains of a 570g jar of French white beans, the leftovers from the sausage stew earlier in the week, are just the job. The result is Mussels with Dill and White Beans, a dish I’ll be making again. Do check out the recipe.
Fish pie is without a doubt one of my all time favourite make ahead suppers. There are many ways to make it and tonight’s version, made with cod and smoked haddock, is pretty basic but nothing wrong with that. I included hard-boiled egg, quite a lot of flat leaf parsley and made a sauce with the milky, seasoned water I’d used to cook the fish. I topped it with mashed potato forked into a lavish patterns of swirls; one of my favourite jobs. Wolfed down with frozen peas (petits pois) and the occasional splash of Lea&Perrins. I bought sufficient cod and haddock to freeze so that I could make another version soon (it’s coming next week, with prawns added).
This morning The B and I are off out early, heading for Somerset. We end up at Barrington and head into an attractive looking pub called The Barrington Boar for a late lunch. First impressions weren’t great. It was cold outside and much to our disappointment, there was no roaring fire, no cosy corners. It was chilly. The B got short shrift when he attempted to order a ploughman’s with our beers. No food order for the next half hour he was told by a very grumpy barmaid. As I waited for him to return, I noticed an elderly couple with cross, irritated expressions on their faces put down their menu and leave. I soon discovered why. The pub bar was lined with locals enjoying a pint and a chat but to the right, all open plan, was what used to be called the children’s room with a few families eating or waiting for food. To the left was a larger space and obviously the restaurant. Then it was my turn to see if I could get anything to eat. I was told in no uncertain terms that if we wanted food we could have a table in half an hour. I replied that we already had a table and would be happy with a bowl of soup or a ploughman’s, didn’t they have a bar as opposed to restaurant menu? You’d have thought I’d asked for The Moon. Okay, I said. That is a shame. And it was. The menu sounded so tempting: wild garlic and potato soup with Ogleshield and ale rarebit, their ploughman’s with honey roast ham, Scotch egg, Longman’s Cheddar, crisp pickles, house chutney and home baked sourdough and cod fishcake with brown and Forrest smoked haddock cream and soft poached egg, and that’s the light bites. Perhaps there was a kitchen crisis, but if there was why didn’t the staff say so? And wouldn’t it be sensible to have a bar menu for people like us who just want sustenance and not a huge gourmet feast? Lunch was a bag of crisps and a late sandwich. Supper, though, was a feast of roast chicken with bread sauce, tinned French peas, a couple of sausages and joy of joy, diced par-boiled potatoes fried with scraps of smoky bacon and finished with parsley.