Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Wintery things

At Borough Market on the weekend some of the best sights were mountains of knobbly winter veg. Fat purpley swedes piled next to boxes filled with pale green rows of leek supporting deep green sticks buttoned with tighly bound brussel sprouts. Masses of potatoes, crinkly heads of cabbage and the tightly curled cream of cauliflowers. With a cold snap on its way I filled my bag with waxy potatoes and leeks for a gratin and parsnips, swede, brussel sprouts and butternut squash for nothing specific beyond the possibilities they offer.

Because it has been so bleak this last week or two I had my heart set on a lush gratin scented with nutmeg and bay. Unsure of which day I would make it I didn't get any of the requisite dairy. Mistake. Come Monday, I needed thick cream and a small piece of gruyere so I dropped into Sainsburys on my way home. The only cream they had was single and the only vaguely similar cheese was pre sliced emmenthal or else various strengths of cheddar in various sized blocks. I hummed and hahed - very possibly out loud - and decided to buy what I could get. I comforted myself with the idea that though not as sumptuous as it might have been with thick cream from Devon and the cheese, though obviously processed to a high shine and added shredded not grated, would still make for a golden crust and all would be well. Dinner would be good not great. In reality it was horrible. The cream had the consistency of water and absolutely none of the delightful richness you get with proper cream. Once cooked it may as well have been water it was so thin and unremarkable - it literally added nothing to the dish. The cheese collapsed into nasty shreds of hot yellow plastic. The potatoes and leeks were lovely - and would have been better simply boiled and served with a knob of butter. It was terrrible to waste them like this.

It infuriates me that it is now impossible to get decent quality ingredients at local supermarkets - they seem to sell nothing that is not bland and processed and nasty. I was disappointed too for my lovely dinner that didn't materialise and for Giles who loves potatoes above most things in this world.


Then I redeemed myself. I had read earlier in the week that the best thing to do with swede is to roast it - an idea I had not previously considered. One of my favourite things is roasting butternut with slices of ginger and bruised unpeeled garlic cloves to make one of the most sumptious vegetables imaginable. It is wonderful hot straight from the pan and equally fabulous cold as a salad dressed with the olive oil the squash was roasted in (with the aromatics taken out). Add chilli to the roast for added zing.

So I was taken with the notion of roasting swede - I simply added it to slices of squash and lengths of peeled parsnips and roasted them all together for about fifty minutes in olive oil with ginger and garlic and a good twist of black pepper. Amazing - the different textures and flavours of each vegetable remained clear as well as melding together for a delightful melange. We ate them hot with roasted wild duck and boiled sprouts for a lovely dinner. Then cold next day with slices of gammon and dark brown rye bread - a quite perfect supper mid week in the depths of winter.

Monday, January 16, 2006

I love Borough Market in London

I have been going to Borough since it was a one off on a dank weekend in December a very long time ago. It was the most extrordianary piece of food magic imaginable with its clusters of producers selling food they had raised themselves, often on a very small scale. All the food was of the highest quality and provenance, rare and exotic treats previously unheard of or unobtainable, despite this being one of the major cities of the world. That first day I bought rump steak from Wild Beef, smoked duck breast sliced paper thin from Brown & Forrest, a box of large organic eggs that were all six of them double yolked (as the sweetly hippyish young man selling them had promised) and a lump of cheese from, I think, Neal's Yard. All these producers are still selling every week, except for the egg man, who came for a while then started selling through the permanent shop that Neal's Yard have set up in Park Street.

A little while after the very first market weekend it was decided to have a food market every third Saturday of the month from 9am till 4pm and see if anyone would come, if it would be worthwhile for the producers to travel to London for a single day's trading. I think it was organised by Henrietta Green strongly backed by Southwark Council's visionary regeneration officer of the time, Fred Manson. I marked those special Saturday's in my diary and the lovely boyfriend and I would set off early and shop. It was like drowning in tempatation. Especially in those very first days everything was perfect and a lot of it was completely unknown.

I have a few really clear ‘food memories’ of the first time that I tried something that I have loved ever since. One day in suburban Sydney, when I was less than ten years old my mother peeled me a mango, told me to go outside and try not to drip the juice all over myself. I was transported to heaven by the dense, sweet flesh and astounded to find the enormous seed in the middle. At that age it was definitely ‘snot fair’ to to be given the most extraordinary thing to eat and then find that half of it was seed. I made the most of it, dragging my teeth across the camel haired husk, sucking all the juice I could. I still eat mangoes the same way.

The first time I ate the bacon from Ginger Pig I had the same epiphany. It is amazing. A good ridge of fat that makes you understand why it can be described as sweet, lovely dense flesh and a pervading flavour of bacon that had seemed to have disappeared from life as I knew it. It was a fantasy moment – with bacon like this, a fry up is simply joy on a plate. I buy some nearly every week - mostly unsmoked oyster offcuts which are the cheapest - then toss it with chilli and garlic for pasta sauce.

Lentils for supper

Gently fry a few rashers of sliced unsmoked oyster bacon with one or two cloves of crushed garlic, till the bacon fat becomes a little translucent. Add 200g of green egyptian lentils, a large sprig of fresh rosemary and a bay leaf and enough water to cover generously. Simmer, covered, for 40 -50 minutes, checking occasionally to see that it hasn't dried out. The liquid should be almost gone, the lentils should be soft but not collapsing. Season generously with salt and pepper - never add salt at the beginning when cooking pulses as it toughens them instantly and they will be forever inedible - a disappointment easy to avoid. Poach a couple of fresh eggs - one to top each bowl - and dinner is ready. If there are left over lentils, they are lovely cold the next day as a salad.