Four weeks of lockdown. Donald Trump is wondering whether drinking disinfectant could solve the Coronavirus problem (please don’t try it – it could kill you) whilst the rest of the world works hard to keep normality afloat.
I am hugely conscious that having a garden during lockdown, even a very small one, makes all the difference in the world, particularly when the weather is this good.
Thanks to a local friend of mine who knows about local charity activities, I found myself seated at my sewing machine making simple bags with draw strings for National Health Service workers dealing with Covid-19 patients. They take off their work clothes, throw them in the bags and put the whole lot, bag and all, in the washing machine when they get home. Simple ideas, but so practical. And it is a bit of a relief to be contributing something, if only on a very small scale. Six made so far.
In the meantime, my fridge-freezer and I are building on a lifetime bond of casual intimacy to form a new, and intense relationship. It has to be said that this new relationship is not always silky smooth. Both the fridge and freezer components are far too small for long-term social distancing and, a major huff, I had to defrost it on Friday because its icy growths were like a form of rampant and rapidly mutating cauliflower. It is, however, saving my sanity and I am truly grateful that it soldiers on in spite of its somewhat geriatric status. I am only hoping that it forgets that it is around 20 years old and that it continues to hang on with all the grit and panache that it has shown to date. I pat it encouragingly from time to time.
Part 2 of Ethiopian Doro Wat. The flavours of last week’s doro wat, an Ethiopian curry, had intensified in the freezer, bringing out the chilli with real enthusiasm. It was just as good as it was before, again served with pilau rice and yogurt with chopped mint and cucumber. The dried limes, which are a recent discovery (which can be ordered from Spice Mountain, which I used to visit in Borough Market, or Amazon) look decidedly unappetizing but are truly delicious, an intense hit of lime in a curry that is just as warmly aromatic as it is spicy. They need a long cook, ideal for a slow cooker or long oven cook, but I do recommend them.
Avgolemono Soup. I cooked this a couple of weeks ago, but here it is again. Avgolemono, which in Greek means egg-lemon, is surprisingly filling. It is made with good quality chicken stock. The traditional way of doing it is to poach fresh chicken to make a stock for the soup, and often the poached chicken meat is chopped into the soup. I usually use home made stock from the freezer, and today used my last batch. There is nothing wrong with using a chicken stock cube as a base. It won’t be as authentic or fresh as poaching chicken or using a home-made stock, but it will still taste great and let’s face it – whatever is easiest has to be the best right now.
The other key ingredients, if you base this on one serving, are three tablespoons of lemon juice, an egg, loads of parsley and (the element that makes it a main meal rather than a starter), a good handful of rice.
The rice is cooked in the stock, with a lid, until ready. Whilst the rice is cooking, the lemon juice and egg are whisked together with a hint of cayenne, a little salt and a pinch of sugar to balance the lemon. I usually do this with just the yolks, but I noticed that Rick Stein does it with the whole egg and a bit of butter, so I tried it and it worked well, thickening the soup more efficiently. The trick with this dish is to add spoonfuls of the hot stock to the room temperature egg and lemon mix, stir it well, repeat, stir well and repeat until the egg and lemon is warmed through and won’t separate. Then pour the whole lot back into the stock and rice pan and heat very gently with the chopped parsley, being careful not to bubble it, or it will separate. It is so easy to make, and has been a massive favourite of mine since I first discovered it.
Butter-fried garlic mushrooms, sliced bacon chop, chunks of courgette, wild garlic, wild garlic flowers and parsley on toast. Oh the bliss. Slightly aged mushrooms and a time-worn courgette were transformed from almost has-beens into a classy, utterly divine and very simple meal. The older the mushrooms, the hotter the heat needs to be to brown them, so I added olive oil to my butter to prevent it burning, and throw in the bacon pieces at this point too. Add the courgettes only when the mushrooms are doing well, because they cook quickly. When the courgettes are browned turn the heat right down, and then add a very finely chopped shallot and garlic clove (can be done in a mini food processor) to heat them through slowly. The garlic is a matter of taste. I like quite a lot. Once the onions are cooked, a good glug of water cools things down. Warm through until everything is just simmering and add chopped wild garlic, chopped parsley, heat for a minute or two to heat through and a dollop of double cream. Stir. Add a little more cream if required, but not too much or it will damp down the other flavours. Served on griddled, grilled or toasted bread, a sprinkle with chopped parsley for some extra colour and a squeeze of lemon juice or a tiny sprinkle of balsamic vinegar.
Lemon-chicken and herb salad. The herb salad was a mad, wonderful pile of flavours, a combination of cuttings from my garden and my fathers. Lovage, lemony buckler leafed sorrel, aromatic sweet cicely, marjoram, oregano, and wild garlic formed the herb element. A standard supermarket packet of rocket and watercress, supplemented with a couple of little gem leaves, formed the base for the herb salad. On top of this, awith all due ceremony, I laid sliced barbecued chicken breast, marinated overnight in lemon, a dollop of Dijon mustard, some crushed garlic, some ground black paper and a good splosh of olive oil. It caramelizes superbly on the griddle, grill or barbecue, and is a wonder with additional feta, diced tomato, diced cucumber and a creamy lemon and mustard dressing to finish it off. Wild garlic flowers were added not merely as a garnish, but to add to the flavour. Edible flowers are a joy. Lemon chunks were another essential, that sharp citrus edge bringing all the other flavours to life.
French Omelette with diced tomato, chopped wild garlic and cheese. French omelettes are never categorized as “fast food,” perhaps because the escape the pejorative associations that the term fast food conjures up, but they are so quick to make and full of flavour. My Mum used to do one that was filled with nothing but chopped fresh herbs, and was sensationally good. Like sandwiches and pizzas you can personalize them ad infinitum and are perfect for using up leftovers, like that last slice of ham, the one spring onion left in the salad draw and those puzzling three mushrooms.
If you have any left-over egg whites from another meal, you can whip them up and fold them into the egg mixture to make a seriously fluffy, soufflé-like omelette. Some people like to cook all their fillings into the egg mix, Chinese foo yung style. When using mushrooms I like to slice them and do just that, tossing them into the egg mix, along with a chopped spring onion if I have one, or chives, but I then add the cheese and any other ingredients to the centre of a part-formed omelette. I like the surface to be a little runny. It continues to cook when you fold it, so if you like the folded interior a little soft, you need it to have a well formed base but a runny surface when you take it off the heat.
With this omelette, all the ingredients were thrown on to the half-cooked eggy surface. This means that the grated cheese melts, the sliced wild garlic wilts, and the diced tomato heats through without cooking. The egg yolks were sensationally yellow, almost buttercup, making the finished, folded omelette look as though it had been infused with saffron.
I never bother serving anything with an omelette as I find them so filling, but a green salad would go well, or a simple sliced tomato and raw onion salad to cut through the egginess would work. Perhaps chips if you are seriously hungry!
Bacon chop with shallow-fried spud slices and summer herb sauce. First, sorry for the awfulness of the photos here, but I cooked late, and I am not used to taking photos in artificial light. I had never had a bacon chop before moving out of London, but it is a wonderful discovery, just under an inch thick and, whilst solid, still has an almost tender texture. A cross between bacon and gammon, and I usually have one in the freezer. The bacon chop is griddled (my preference), grilled or fried until it has a crispy texture.
The sauce, which could be a simple parsley sauce, is better with a good mixture of herbs if you are growing them or can get hold of them. It can be made either as a béchamel (a roux of equal parts of flour and butter, with warm milk added slowly to provide a thick base for a sauce), but my preference is a lighter approach, a velouté (also based on equal parts of flour and butter) using vegetable or chicken stock stirred into the butter and flour mix, finished with a dollop of crème fraîche.
If you are doing a béchamel, I would recommend adding a large bay leaf and some chopped shallot or onion to the warm milk or stock to give it an aromatic edge, leaving it to infuse on a very low heat for around 10 minutes before adding it to the roux. Warming the milk before adding is key , so that the flour in the roux cooks through thoroughly and doesn’t taste floury in the sauce.
It is just as important with a velouté to ensure that the stock going into the flour and butter mix is just short of boiling, so that it cooks the flour. White wine is a good addition, but only after the velouté has heated through fully and is thick.
The herb mix I used in this sauce, all fresh, was parsley, marjoram, lovage, wild garlic, sweet cicely, chives and a spring onion. The spring onion needs to be very finely chopped, but everything else is better for being roughly chopped, so that the flavours shine through. The lovage is particularly vibrant in this sauce. I leave my chopped herbs stirred into a little white wine whilst I am preparing the rest of the meal, to release the flavour and retain the freshness.
If you want to bulk the meal out, a vegetable accompaniment, like tender stem or purple sprouting broccoli or asparagus are winners, a hard boiled egg can be chopped into the sauce, or it is excellent with a poached egg on top of the bacon chop, which works splendidly with the herb sauce.
You may think, looking at it, that I went overboard with the sauce because you cannot actually see the bacon chop (should have thought of that before pouring it, knowing I was intending to take a photo), but I love the sauce so much and the bacon chop is so full of flavour that it holds its own perfectly. Not for me the twin culinary graces of elegance and restraint favoured by Michelin starred restaurants. And no regrets either. The flavours, so fresh and vibrant, were perfect.
Herb (or parsley) sauce is incredibly versatile as it goes well with chicken and many sorts of fish. When served with fish, lemon zest is a good addition, and if you are poaching the fish, you can use some of the poaching water as the base for a velouté. I also used to do a vegetarian version with baked butternut squash, the creamy parsley sauce providing a terrific contrast to the earthy depth and sweetness of the squash.
Tomato, chopped wild garlic and grated cheese that had been prepared to to into my French omelette, but I had done too much, so although they were rather meagre in quantity, I had tipped them into a bag and put the bag in the fridge.
Tonight, I wasn’t terribly hungry and I really fancied something simple and quite small, so I griddled a slice of fresh bread on both sides, scrambled an egg, and tipped the cheese, tomato and wild garlic out of the bag and into the slowly scrambling egg.
Everyone has their favourite way of doing scrambled egg, and here’s mine. I heat butter in the omelette pan until it starts to sizzle. Then I break in an egg, split open the yolk with a wooden spoon, and stir very gently so that there are huge streaks of yellow threading through the translucent egg white. Only when the egg white begins to go opaque do I stir it properly, mixing it together, pulling it in to form curds. As soon as it begins to consolidate I throw in whatever I am intending to add, and cook just until the cheese melts. I like it slightly liquid, so I remove it from the heat and turn it very quickly on to the toast to prevent it cooking further. I served it with a small herby salad.
- If someone like my father is good enough to provide you with cut fresh herbs, immediately wrap their bases in water-soaked kitchen towel for transporting them, and then put them in water, like a bunch of flowers, as soon as you get home. Change the water daily and they will stay fresh for several days.
- A friend and I, living a 10 minute walk from one another, have decided to let each other know when we have too many vegetables or herbs that need using up. It’s a strange ceremony practised in latex gloves, putting food down in front of the door like an offering, ringing the bell and then backing off for it to be collected, but it works. I gave her a couple of bunches of fresh herbs, and she gave me some of her spuds that are sprouting, which I will use for soup.
- I had to defrost the freezer. When I eat out of the freezer, I find that I am living out of the front it because I am using its ingredients, combined with fresh veg, to cook multiple portions, one to eat and the others to put in the freezer. Even though there are lots of more exciting bits in the back, it is a drama to unpack the front to get to them, so there is a high probability that I will find myself eating mainly the things I have cooked recently. Reorganizing the freezer fills my soul with dread, but I used the need to defrost it as an excuse to re-organize, re-inventory and hopefully introduce some more variety into my cooking.
- I seem to have the national collection of sausages. The challenge will be to use them in interesting and diverse ways. Or to have them with egg, baked beans and HP sauce 🙂