Comfort food is the order of the day in my house, soups, stew and things on toast is what I’m craving. Oh yes, and the occasional game bird. I once walked past a garage-cum-office opposite my doctor, very close to where I live and a bloke came out with a brace of pheasant. ‘Where are you going with those?’ I brazenly asked. ‘I’m going to give them to May’s’ (a Chinese restaurant just around the corner), ‘Oh lucky them’, I say. ‘They’re yours if you want them’. Of course I did.
I like pheasant meat high and gamey and as it was cold, I hung them outside my back door out of the reach of cats, dogs and foxes, for 10 days. I once plucked 24 on the trot so wasn’t phased by plucking two but dog Red was a bit perplexed. I pluck directly into a bin liner between my knees to catch as many of the little feathers as possible but they always go everywhere, so it’s always hoover out at the end before the gory bit starts. Sunday’s pheasant is big, so will feed two and is the first of the season and a fitting end to a week of relatively plain comfort grub.
Lunch is a treat. The B has been walking past La Trompette several times every day for almost three years and out of the blue, on the line from Trinidad, he asked me to book a table for Sunday lunch. I haven’t been to La Trompette for years, but over the years, since it opened in 2001, I’ve been several times. Before I was signed up by the Times, I wrote regularly for the Mail’s YOU magazine and Angela Mason, it’s food editor, would take me for lunch there to discuss new ideas.
The restaurant had a major refurb in 2013 and now the look is comfortable and pleasant with a sense of calm. It is unassuming but modern and bathed in light from the glass frontage. The tables are set comfortably apart. The chef now and since the refurb is Rob Weston, who worked as Phil Howard’s right arm and head chef at The Square for 15 years and previously for Marco (Pierre White), Guy Savoy in Paris and Le Gravroche; so it’s posh food. I advance choose a table with the help of one of the managers, a charming, young French chap. He warned me that a big party was booked so we made a point of arriving early, so we could order (Bloody Mary’s) before they did. We both had a very rich, very delicious Jerusalem artichoke and cep veloute with warm autumn truffle and toasted brioche. Special though the soup was, it was too heavy on cream for my taste and the truffle overwhelmed artichoke and cep, both subtle flavours. With this we had a lovely half bottle of Chablis as recommended by the sommelier (there used to be a very beautiful female sommelier here when it first opened, goodness where she’s disappeared to). Our second choice of wine, Cellier de la Baraterie, highly recommended and unknown to either of us, turned out not to be to our taste. Later I discovered it was cultivated naturally in the facon; the type of wine I always avoid, as there is something about the cultivation that results in a noticeably odd flavour that I don’t like. Main courses, though, were both elegant and perfectly cooked; a roast rump of rose veal with creamed polenta, muscat grapes and crime di rapa and shoulder of Mangatam pork with turnip gratin and barbecued hispi cabbage. The gratin is something I plan to try at home but barbecued hispi (sweet, pointy cabbage) is not. The finale, as suggested by the sommelier, was eau de vie de prune. This gorgeous fire-water was just the ticket after such a rich meal. I might have to track down a bottle.
After a lovely walk with Red, lounging about reading the papers in front of a roaring fire, I can’t believe we were hungry again. Two poached eggs on toast for The B, one for me.
One of my grandsons is working his way through the Harry Potter books as his dad did before him. One went with him to read over half term at the Fish Store in Mousehole (www.thefishstore.uniquehomestays.com). One night at about 7.30 Caspar (10) rang to ask how to make Treacle Tart. It’s mentioned, he said, in his HP book. I explained but don’t think he was very impressed by the thought of a bread tart. I told him there was a recipe in The Fish Store, the book I wrote while living there, a copy of which is on the shelf above the cooker. Interest seemed to wane instantly. My version, a family favourite refined over the years, tends to go down well. I’m proud to say that Alastair Little once said it was the best he’d ever eaten. Nico Ladenis, on the other hand, said ‘What on earth is that?’ The occasion was way back in the eighties when there was a brief trend for turning the tables on restaurant critics; we had to cook for chefs. One of the first was at Anthony Blond’s house on the river at Narrow Street and I brought a large treacle tart.
Anyway, back to now. Okay Caspar, I hear myself saying, I’ll make you one for your pudding when I collect you from school on Monday. Today is that Monday. I buy vanilla ice cream to go with, blind bake the pastry, so he and his brother can help loading the case with breadcrumbs, then spoon over the Golden Syrup (much interest in the lion and the flies that hover above his head) and squeeze of lemon. Into the oven and it’s two helpings for Caspar. I save some for my supper and the rest goes home to share with mum and dad. The pastry gets special mention from my daughter-in-law and I explain how to make it. It’s my mum’s recipe and was something I used to have to prepare virtually every Sunday for a pie or crumble and it was a job I hated. I include a decent lump of lard with the butter and crumb the mixture quickly and lightly with my (cold) fingers. My mother’s pastry was famously good and her secret, she always said, was cold hands. I’m not so sure, I think it’s that lard that gives a flaky lightness to short crust. I rest it for 30 minutes or so (in a plastic bag in the fridge), roll it thin, butter and flour a flan tin with a removable base and carefully press it into the tin with an overhang (to slice off after the tart is cooked) or make a neat edge that clings to the top of the tin and won’t shrink down the sides when the tart is blind baked.
Supper for me is veal escalopes. They are never thin enough, so I have a go myself and it’s a therapeutic job, sandwiching the escalopes between two sheets of parchment paper and gently but firmly beating with a rolling pin until at least half as big again. If the pieces are very big, I cut them in half so the frying pan isn’t crowded. The escalopes are dipped in flour, the excess shaken off and then swiped through beaten egg and pressed onto breadcrumbs until no bald patches remain. I do everything with tongs to avoid egg and breadcrumbing my fingers. I always have a stash of breadcrumbs in the freezer, different breads, different fineness to the crumb, all in different plastic bags or poly boxes. I crumb once, not twice, as some people prefer and the escalopes can be held for a few hours ready to fry covered with clingfilm in the fridge. Frying is brief. I use a reliably non-stick pan heated up with a small amount of groundnut oil, frying (again using tongs) for a minute or two a side, until the crumbs are golden. I love this with tinned French peas and a wedge of lemon squeezed over the crisp, golden escalopes. The sound of the knife as it cuts through the crisp shell giving onto just-cooked tender veal is one of my favourite food sounds. This method of preparation and cooking works well for chicken breast fillets and pork fillet, also beaten pork chops. Treacle tart and vanilla ice cream for pudding. What a lovely meal.
Lunch today at the Chelsea Arts Club with an artist friend. I love the dining room and always get a frisson of pleasure when I push the heavy door open to see the huge painting on the far wall, the beautifully dressed artists table, always with candelabra and plants, sometimes flowers too, and usually hope for one of the tables under that big, long painting with the grandfather clock tucked in the corner and heavy drapes that nestle towards it at windows giving on to the garden. My friend, though, wanted to eat in the Loggia, a brighter room tucked off the back section of the main dining room. You never know what a visit here is going to be like but today it is busy. We were late arrivals but lucky to bag a table by the window, looking out into the garden, a highlight of this lovely club. We both opted for two starters. One of mine, a so-called smoked haddock rarebit with beetroot, chives and spring onions, was an absolute knock out. A piece of perfectly cooked haddock had been covered with cheese and crumb (the rarebit) and cooked until crusty and golden. The pretty and very complementary salad was almost incidental. My other starter was a pleasant salad of bouncy tiger prawns cooked in white wine with chilli, beansprouts and coriander. Marilyn’s two starters, were just as good. First mussels, helpfully taken out of the shell, in a tasty broth made with ale and almonds, then stuffed rabbit. The latter was a huge portion, more of a main course. I was expecting a terrine from the menu description of stuffed rabbit with salsa verde and disarmingly named bull’s blood leaf salad (actually little beetroot leaves). Instead, it was a huge piece of tender rabbit with a substantial stuffing, the rich flavours enhanced by a dollop of salsa verde and the pretty salad.
Defrosted my second carton of beetroot and roast red pepper soup for lunch with a separately cooked poached egg dropped in just before serving. I love making more of a simple pureed vegetable soup by adding a soft-poached egg and this faux borscht became incredibly rich and special with the creamy egg yolk bursting against the magenta soup, the firm white giving a pleasant texture burst to some of the mouthfuls.
There was a time, when I lived in a long narrow flat in leafy Russell Road, off the Olympia end of Kensington High Street, that my flat mates and I virtually lived on cauliflower cheese. I worked near the Angel, parallel with Upper Street, Islington, and used to shop in Essex Road market. When I say shop, what I actually mean is pick up discarded cauliflower, tomatoes and onions lying by the side of the stalls. I’m pretty sure it’s not really kosher, but it became a way of life, this was urban food for free. We’re talking late sixties, very early seventies. I remember making cauli cheese in a roasting tin because it was the only pan large enough to accommodate enough for everyone. It was often piled at the last minute with some kind of salad, a colourful mess that went down a storm. I’m still experimenting but the time-honoured favourite is what I call deluxe cauli cheese with hard boiled eggs hidden in the cheese sauce and a generous streaky bacon lattice that shrinks and crisps, the fat enriching every mouthful. That’s what I made for supper tonight, with leftover French peas and meaty pork sausages. Oh my, this is a very good combination, specially if there are some roast tomato halves on offer – they can cook at the same time as the sausages.
When I made pastry for treacle tart earlier in the week, I made far too much, so decided to use it to make a pie for supper tomorrow when The B’s mum is coming over. Chicken and Leek Pie with Tarragon is a favourite combination and that’s my plan. I nip out and do the shopping and then cook the filling, leaving it to cool before it’s piled into a pastry-lined pie tin. I decorate the lid with leaves and paint it with beaten egg for a glossy finish.
For tonight’s supper, my stores come up trumps. There is smoked streaky bacon, eggs and parmesan in the fridge, garlic hanging by the French windows and a choice of pasta in the cupboard, so it’s super-simple supper of carbonara conjured in minutes. I never tire of it.
Buy smoked salmon, mini blinis, crème fraiche and chives for tonight’s starter. This is nice and easy and perfect to snack over in front of the fire with a glass of white wine. I lay the table and pick one of the last roses for decoration, get the wine organized and prep the veg to go with the pie; roast parsnips and peas. There is gravy to serve with the pie and I’m pleased to say it went down very well (The B had two big portions) although secretly I wished I’d made fresh pastry so I could have rolled the top layer a bit thicker. But I’m a fuss-pot. Cheese and fresh fruit for pud; everyone too full to do either justice.
Up in good time to watch the final of the rugby, England v South Africa. I was faffing around when the match started, so missed the rum beginning but the match never got going for England. In fact, it was a nasty match. During the interval, I grilled smoked, streaky bacon to go with toast and poached eggs and made coffee. What a paragon. I’ve never understood why a cooked breakfast seems to make me hungrier during the rest of the day and that’s what happened today. Red got a lovely walk down by the river, ending with a pint in the George and Devonshire hard on the Hogarth Roundabout. It looks lovely from the outside, a big, old building with plant boxes bursting with colour and the smell of the nearby brewery often lingering in the air, snaffling the smell of petrol as traffic grinds round the roundabout. It’s worth checking out. The beer is good, the seats are comfortable, there is a relaxed air, a bit of outdoor space at the rear and it’s never busy.
Lunch is scavenged in a hurry from the food cupboards; Spanish butter beans and tuna in olive oil, eggs boiled and bread warmed in the oven. I’m trying not to be greedy as we have roast pheasant for supper. The bird is stuffed with a big bunch of thyme, covered with streaky bacon, with game chips, bread sauce, sprouts and gravy made with the juices, sprout water and a spoonful of redcurrant jelly.
Roasting pheasant can be a disaster but I know a very good method and it comes from Mark Leatham. Together with his brother Oliver, Mark started Merchant Gourmet in 1995 and we have the brothers a lot to thank for. Some time ago Mark retreated from the sharp end of the business to live on Dartmoor. I suspect he is a gentleman farmer but I know he has a pheasant connection. He once took me out to dinner and arrived with a drawn (plucked and oven ready) brace he’d shot himself. As he gave them to me, he recommended freezing the birds before eating. It helps, he said, to tenderize what can be tough old birds. He also told me his way of roasting the birds and it’s become my foolproof method too. The bird/birds are roasted on one side for 10-15 minutes depending on size, turned to the other side for a further 10 minutes then finished breast side up for a final 10 minutes. A good mug of water is added at the beginning. Not wine, water. The bird is then rested for 10-15 minutes before it’s carved or served whole to deal with at the table. The resting is vital and you have to trust me on the timings. Gravy is made with the juices in the pan; I like to add a splash of white wine, spoonful of redcurrant jelly, having dusted the surface with a little sieved flour vigorously stirred into the liquid – no worries if it goes lumpy, the gravy can be passed through a sieve into a jug. It was Merchant Gourmet, incidentally, who introduced us to pouches of ready to eat Puy lentils, Camargue red rice and peeled, cooked chestnuts. All of them are likely to be in my store cupboard at any time of the year.