21 January 2015

Hearth food: heart food

Martin James 1905 - 1975
My maternal grandfather, Dadcu in Welsh, or D'cu as we used to call him, Martin James, had two dietary practices that no one else in my life, then or since, has repeated. He used to swallow a raw egg in the mornings, the yolk bobbing about in its albumen as he tipped the glass towards his mouth. I imagined the yellow dome breaking in his throat as he swallowed. And he sliced cheddar cheese into a glass dish and placed it in front of the open coal fire to melt. Then he spooned it onto fresh, hand-cut white bread. I remember tasting the melted cheese. I remember the pull and slip of it against the spoon, like soft toffee. I kept a safe distance from any involvement with the raw egg.

It didn't occur to me that D'cu's melted cheese was a traditional Welsh dish. Caws pobi: roasted or baked cheese. And some people might wonder what the difference is between melted cheese spooned out of a dish and cheese melted on toast under the grill. But I think you'll have to make some to appreciate it. I suppose, primarily, cooking something at an open hearth pre-dates grilling by some considerable time, so there's an historical element that affects us when we cook this way. But there really is something about the taste and texture and contrast of temperatures that you just don't get with cheese on toast. And perhaps the idea of sitting in front of a real fire, and watching your food cook, taps into a primitive satisfaction and a time when the world rolled along at a slower pace. And, of course, for me, it connects me to my D'cu too, a slight man with a big heart who was old before his time, like so many men of his generation who lost their youth and health to Welsh tinplate works and coal mines.

In Bobby Freeman's First Catch Your Peacock, a cross between a cookery book and a history book about the food of Wales, from earliest times right up to the 20th century, she talks about the Welsh early passion for caws pobi, the forerunner of the internationally known Welsh Rarebit and traces references back to medieval and Tudor times. But, interestingly, the cheese best suited to 'roasting' was a hard cheese like Cheddar, and not the softer cheeses then being made in Wales, the result of the soil's acidity, although cheese made from ewe's milk, like the Spanish Manchego was, she assumes, a good alternative.

On my way home to pobi some caws I call for French bread at the tiny Spar attached to our local garage, whose lovely proprietors stock unusual local products and speciality ones from all over the British Isles. I spot a wheel of Ginger Spice, one of the gorgeous flavoured cheddars made by the Snowdonia Cheese Company. And Snowdon is about as Welsh as you can get! 

We've had our wood-burning stove roaring away 24/7 ever since we came back from Florida at the end of December and as soon as I put on a pan of sliced plain Cheddar and some Ginger Spice it all sizzled at such an alarming rate I was almost juggling the camera like a hot potato to try and get some shots. In less than a minute they had melted to within memories of themselves and started to burn. But clouds and silver linings and all that... once I'd spooned off what I could and slathered it onto hunks of fresh bread (pause here for some enjoyable chewing...) I was left with a cooling crispy cheese crust that lifted off the non-stick pan like a savoury veil. Parmesan crisps? Forget about them: creision (crisps) caws pobi are the future. 

D'cu melted his cheese more slowly, away from the fire's direct heat. Too slowly from a kid's perspective when having to wait for anything makes you twitch and fidget. But I'm also guessing his generation wouldn't have been anywhere near as impatient as we are today when we so easily rankle at a slow internet speed, traffic jams, queues at banks or supermarkets. 

I need to tackle caws pobi again: at a different pace. In a thicker oven-proof dish for a start. Or maybe I could prop it on a few logs in front of the wood-burner's open door where I can sit and watch the flames, their hypnotic flare and flicker. Food, like the memories of people we loved, still love, shouldn't be rushed.

Thanks, D'cu. Cysgu yn dawel*.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the heat from a fire. 

* Sleep peacefully. 

13 January 2015

Please come in: welcome to my kitchen

The door is wide and warm, the kettle's on. The honey pourer that arrived here via China and the USA sits upon my Granny's plate, its edges softly frilled like grandmothers are, but often aren't. And the woman framed above who looks as if she might have slipped off the tip of William Russell Flint's sable brush, hasn't. I know; it seems as if nothing's as it really is. But it is. The child's drawing on the fridge is nothing else but itself. The gouge mark in the knotted pine wood floor proof of something heavy dropped between us, even if we struggle to remember what. And fruit is always fruit even when its cut.

There's laughter here. In the photos of how we used to be and, I like to think, captured from family, friends and even strangers like yourself in the butter yellow doors and drawers - invisible veins of music. And tears too. Our own. A daughter's pain. A friend's, in the instant she knew her man's betrayal and her shoulders dropped the way you'd watch a puppet fall when its strings are cut.

Taken in a vintage Kodak photo booth
Santa Barbara CA 1992
Sometimes the oven's or the summer's heat envelops us. Sometimes a season's morning chill makes us tiptoe across the room past the cold slices of glass, looking out on a wall of rough cut stone, a meagre persistence of moss below glowing emerald in the winter sun.

A black cat stretches here. Goes out. Comes in and leaves her muddy paw prints on the hand-made table, though its size and weight bely that phrase, the slabs of pink beech and squarely jointed legs, body-made perhaps.

The pendulum of the electronic clock mimes a tick, a tock: its swing a measurement of time that metronomes our hearts, our breath, when we are calm. Falls silent when things are broken, cracked: a plate, a forgotten promise, a glass salt pot. Regains its voice when we dance around the room, the cellar's dark air beneath our feet where wine is stored and brought up and made to sing 
in crystal and drunk. 
Garden bell from Villa les
Marronniers, Antibes.

When you come to leave take the back door, the one that opens to trees, past the photo of men who worked on this farm a hundred years ago. Their faces are inscrutable, obeying a call to pose, their real lives hidden like the faint traces of dreams. Which this life you've just walked through might seem to you: a mismatched congregation of effects. Like that iron bell, beside the carved bowl of knobbled gourds, engraved with a number 10.  But things are usually simpler than you think: the number on a street in France where we once lived and lost ourselves a while. When we ring the bell we find ourselves again. 

Stories breathe between these walls. This is where each day, over coffee sweet and strong, another one begins. 

Hungry Writer Prompt
Write about getting lost. And getting found.

Fruit, Coffee by Tony Crosse 2002

6 January 2015

The Year of Eating Everything. And cabbage with attitude.

'Bad news,' Tony said. 'The little freezer broke down while we were away. Everything is mush and mold.'

Yep, that just about described the four drawers in varying degrees of decomposition: sludge, spores and the striking blue and white of Penicillium. The only thing to escape the annihilation was a bag of plain white burger rolls, the only processed food item in there, which were surprisingly, and worryingly, fresh looking and, when I poked them, as bouncy as the day they were born. Makes you think, doesn't it?

I wasn't upset exactly. And bereft is far too strong a word too. But when I started to bag up all the ruin (including those rolls) I realised that all my late summer fruit was there. Bramleys, chopped and pureed, for pies and desserts and sauce. Victoria plums stoned and halved for puddings and jam. I swear I could hear the buzz of drunken wasps and feel the heat from the stove from the days spent picking and preparing it all. I felt the waste of it. The loss of those summer tastes from fruit grown on our land. The year turns though.

(N.B. The blog is so far devoid of accompanying photos for a good reason.)

So the 'everything' in the title of this post isn't quite the everything I imagined. But I have decided to try my best to eat everything I buy and put in my fridge and cupboards. Not that I throw out much food, but after reading Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal (see last week's post) and being so impressed with her inventive and graceful ways with what could easily be thrown away - stale bread, broccoli stalks and cheese rinds to name a few - I feel inspired to emulate her, as far as I can. 

Sassy Savoy
And it makes good sense too: economic sense, environmental sense. And it's a challenge to be creative with sad cases in the salad drawer or sulks at the back of the fridge. 

Not that Savoy cabbage can ever be accused of being sad or sulky; those tightly pleated leaves seem eternally confident. But it was only a quarter of a cabbage on the cusp of its commercial death (not that I pay too much attention to use by/sell by dates) so it qualified as a user-upper. 
A date with cabbage death.

So, some chopped sad carrots (with a lonely knob of chopped red onion and a chopped 'respectable' garlic clove) sauteed in olive oil later, I added a splash of white wine to make it sizzle and some chicken stock and simmered it until the carrots were soft. Then I added the shredded Savoy and let it cook for another 8 minutes until that began to surrender to the heat too.

My 'far from sad' soup
sprinkled with chopped chives.
I could have been less heavy handed with the spicy blend of dried garlic and parsley, salt and chilli flakes I brought back from Italy in September as well as adding them at the beginning of the cooking time not  towards the end. But hey, baby, it's cold outside. The last scrapings from a tub of creme fraiche and blending half of the mixture before stirring it all together again gave me this lovely dish of far from sad soup. 

So that's my first 'waste not, want not' recipe of the year. This afternoon I was skulking around Tesco's reduced shelf and grabbed some fine stewing beef at less than half price. I'm thinking of experimenting with black olives in a stew - there's half a can of them open in the fridge - and maybe some dried fruit too. We'll see. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about all the things that shouldn't be wasted in life.

30 December 2014

What matters in the here and now: food and grace.

Last night's here and now was an experiment with Pissaladière, Niçoise kind of open tart, or flat bread, filled or topped with caramelised onions, anchovies and black olives. We've invited our neighbours in for a New Year's glass or two of champagne and nibbles next Sunday and I'm playing around with canapé ideas - the usual meat, fish, vegetarian presentation. I wanted to see if the topping would hold up cooked on a sheet of puff pastry then cut into small squares. It does. But it won't. It's more a 'chomp on that with a glass of rustic red wine' kind of snack than a glass of champagne one.

To be honest, I seem to be thinking too much about this event, trying too hard to come up with little plates of food to welcome people into our home. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a side-effect of lingering jet lag after flying back from Florida a couple of days ago. Maybe I'm focussing too much on wanting to impress people, some of whom I hardly know. A 'look at my perfectly original amuse-bouches, people!' approach that really isn't the way I normally think about food and feeding people at all. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about trying to be perfect at something, or for someone.

I recently bough Tamar Adler's lyrical and meditative An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace, a book that is far more than a cookbook or a book about how we live and eat, but has so much to say about both, and more. I read it while sitting on a beach in Florida and so many times I had to close the book and close my eyes and let myself absorb the poetry of her words and insights. I know when a book is about to take up permanent residence in my life when I start filling the margins with notes and underlining words I want to remember. This is a book for writers who love food. Capers are as odd and wild as birds. (p.136)  Yes!

And now I'm remembering what she says on p.215:

...the simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you're cooking. We come for the opportunity to look up from our plates and say 'thank you'. It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked.

Now, some champagne and a few mouthfuls of savouriness are not dinner. There's no table sharing involved. But our get-together next Sunday is about companionship, about living in the same lane, about what we have in common and about the differences we accept in each other.

And now I start to think about food as tenderness, as an ordinary but sincere smile, as good wishes for the now and what's to come, as the grace in the title of Tamar Adler's book. That's a start. I can go forward from here. And maybe the Pissaladière* will find a place.

Happy New Year. Go forward with grace too - from the here and now and into what 2015 will bring for you.

*You'll find Tamar Adler's guidelines for making this on pages 147 to 149 of her book although there are hundreds of recipes for it on-line. But she is the only cook I've ever read who really understands the patience involved in caramelising onions. Do not believe anyone else who says 20 minutes, even half an hour, is enough. Prepare yourself to engage with them for an hour. 'Golden jam', she says. Yes. 

22 December 2014

The Hunger Trap (and my inexcusable, creativity-barren attempts to escape from it)

I can count the number of ready meal items I buy at home in the UK on one hand. Make that less than one hand: Tesco Finest Prawn and Chili Fishcakes and Four Cheese frozen pizzas. They're quick 'feed me/us now' options. The fishcakes are for me when I'm on my own: baked and crisped up in the oven and slipped onto a rocket (arugula) salad. The pizzas are for us both on a chow down in front of the TV night: we undress them, top them with a selection of fresh sliced tomatoes, char-grilled artichokes, hot and sweet peppers, black olives, maybe a few slices of Waitrose's Italian fennel salami on mine, and wait 15 minutes for the oven to exert its transforming powers of bubble and melt.

So why was I gazing into the icy bowels of a freezer at Publix supermarket on Deerfield Beach, here in south Florida, a couple of nights ago as if it held the answers to my culinary dreams? Some possible reasons. 

Tony wasn't hungry so I was looking only to feed myself. It was late, 8pm, later than I'd normally eat. I was tired. And I'd gone around the curve of hungry into the strait of being over-hungry where my blood sugar levels start to plummet and I get grumpy. All of which are pathetic and clatter together into one big unacceptable whine, making me more than deserving of what followed.

1) When I got home the box of Cajun flavoured frozen Wild Atlantic salmon told me I'd need to defrost it for 8 to 12 hours and 2) 1 hour and 30 minutes later the frozen Lime & Coriander Shrimp emerged from the villa's oversized oven, big enough to cook a small goat in, looking as appetising as the fragments of wave-shattered jelly fish along the shore when we first arrived on Hillsboro Beach, and with, I imagine, a similar consistency.

C'mon! I can do better than that. I know I can. And with very little effort. Some al dente pasta tossed in softened, chopped garlic, olive oil, parsley and grated Parmesan. A fried egg on hot buttered toast. Or just a dish of sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with oil and salt, sprinkled with chopped spring onions, or scallions as they're called here, and bread to mop up the juice. It's not rocket science; it's not even science.

This story doesn't end well. (Although there was a satisfying interim event of a crustily seared but melt in the mouth medium rare filet mignon with a bottle of J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon that didn't allow for even the seed of a whine to be germinated, let alone planted.) Last night I gave the (defrosted) salmon a chance. And promptly slid it off my plate into the bin. Salmon should taste of salmon not a fishmonger's rag. 

But I wasn't completely thwarted this time: on my plate was a pile of curly green rocket drizzled with oil and a baked potato whose skin had been rubbed with salt and whose creamy heart was draped in sour cream. Ahhh. There's nothing like letting ordinary ingredients run about (almost) naked to make me smile.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about throwing something away.
Write about being 'almost' naked.