rites of spring

I don’t want to eat sweet asparagus, manicured from the piled earth; give me a tangled pot of wild greens, coarse and curled and bitter, to make spring feel less polite. There is something altogether too tennis-and-cucumber about much of an English spring, and a certain tendency among some writers to subscribe to these cut-price Bridesheadisms, as if all anyone wanted to do was sip gin amongst the aspidistras.

Personally, the first onset of hot weather combines with the latening nights to instil in me a desire to drink cold wine in an unrestrained and unrelenting torrent, as different from the furtive debauchery of winter drinking as it is from the full, lazy decadence of a good summer drunk. Spring is the right time for wild abandon. Skin a rabbit and braise it with alexanders; catch a mackerel and eat it raw.

Or maybe not, I don’t know. Wildness is such a luxury now, more so than white linen and pink gin, and spring is the right time to do as you like. Steam a trout and flake it off the bone alongside some hollandaise;  manicure piles of asparagus from the sweet earth, and dip their boiled tips into butter, hot and liquid in the cool shade.

A little lump

I often think that a dumpling is an underrated thing. Not the wrapped sort, of course, which travel a direct line from China and through the various -stans to reach possibly their greatest iteration in the broth-filled khinkali of Georgia, spreading and mutating into manti, pierogi, varenyky, tortellini and the like; the boiled dough giving way to fillings of chopped or minced meat, scrambled or still-flowing egg or chickpeas or ricotta or anything at all is one of the finest sensations available to the mouth, and everybody knows it. I’m talking about the other, naked kind, the little lumps of dough or breadcrumbs which usually exist more as an accompaniment than as the main event. (To differentiate between these and a wrapped dumpling I suggest we rename the naked form a lumpling).

I last ate a suet lumpling in the depths of our recent second winter, nestling in the hollows of a stew of three kinds of sausage and numerous beans, the whole thing enriched by the liver pate melted through it, which was exactly as heavy as it sounds. You might think the lumpling appropriate only to this sort of heavy cold weather cuisine, rib-stickers designed to line the body against harsh north winds; if you have eaten, though, a plateful of the ricotta-based gnudi then you know how shockingly light a lumpling can be. It would be nice, I think, on a cold April evening, to make a dough with ricotta and shredded wild garlic, and to poach the little lumps in a white ragu of spring rabbit, pale and sweet and green.

Soup Of The Evening

When you awake, perhaps a little hungover but in any case tired from a long week of work, to a quiet white blanket across roof and pavement and more coming down fast, the inevitable desire for pies, braises, broths and stews has to battle with the mundane reality of kicking through the slush to the shops. For some reason, while being out in the snow with no purpose is a great delight, running errands in it a soggy chore.

Some chefs and food writers have, I’m sure, a freezer full of old bones, scraggy pieces of meat and the like, stored for just this reason; many must have tupperware full of daubes and casseroles only needing a long defrost. As my freezer contains only two wholemeal flatbreads, badly freezer-burned, my dreams of soup remained just that. I could, come to think of it, have made a little broth of dried mushrooms and potatoes, but to tell the truth I couldn’t really be bothered; far easier to pound garlic, anchovies, capers and walnuts, loosen the mixture with some of the water from just-cooked pasta, toss together and eat with a glass of unambitious wine.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

Boat Bread

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Of all the alien things about Georgia – the language, apparently written in Elvish, the darkly ornate Christianity, the fruit-and-garlic sauces, the tininess of their cats – perhaps the strangest is that that they simply don’t eat breakfast, or at least have no real culture of doing so. Although there is something to be said for the lingua franca of the hotel continental breakfast – always different, always the same – one of the key pleasures of travelling, I find, is to explore the different ways in which various peoples choose to start their day. The mezeish spread of a Turkish weekend, picking at muhammara, sausage, dates, cheeses, tahini, clotted cream, olives, salads and fruit, puts you in a frame of mind very different to that engendered, say, by a pastry washed down with an espresso at a Neapolitan bar, which is one of the reasons that being in Naples is very different to being in Istanbul. The lack of breakfast makes Tbilisi hard to grasp.

Given that another key pleasure of travelling is staying out until two every morning drinking in the street, however, it is easy enough to get up late and treat every lunch as brunch. Although we went to an excellent place which specialises in hangover cures to try the traditional Georgian remedy of spiced tripe soup (properly speaking this should be slopped down drunkenly before you go to bed, though it still seemed effective after the fact), I couldn’t entirely escape my British craving for egg and bread; the Georgians will see your scrambled egg on toast and raise you an Adjarian khachapuri.

Khachapuri simply means cheese bread, a genre of Georgian baking which sees the one stuffed into the other; in its Adjarian form it is boat-shaped, similar to but rounder than the Turkish pide, and crowned, as pide often also is, with an egg. The genius of the Georgian version is that the egg is left almost raw and joined with quite a large amount of fresh butter, to be mixed into the still-hot cheese filling at the table; cheesy scrambled eggs, essentially, which you scoop out with pieces of the crust – an excellent way to begin the day, although given that in its smallest tourist size it is a good seven inches across, that day is unlikely to be very productive. These are easy enough to make at home – Olia Hercules has a recipe in her new book or here, which you will need to triple in size for the full experience – although you might find that negates the lazy pleasure of having one brought to you as you sit in a cafe in Hackney or Tbilisi or Batumi over late coffees and salty mineral water, your head still full of last night’s wine.

A Tale Of Two Pickles

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It strikes me as odd that we use the terms pickle and ferment so interchangeably. Ask for a pickle in America and you will most likely be given a dill pickle, that is to say a lacto-fermented cucumber; ask for the same in England and you will probably receive a heavily vinegared baby onion or, if your hypothetical pickle-giver didn’t catch that indefinite article, some sort of Branston-alike, which is to say an equally vinegared vegetable chutney.

Fermenting and pickling, it’s true, do serve the same purpose both practically and culinarily; they preserve the gluts of summer against the long bare winter, and add (ironically) freshness and life to otherwise bland or rich meals. It’s amazing how much more gruel you can choke down if it’s interspersed with bites of sauerkraut, or, at the other end of the scale, how much more palatable a couple of cornichons renders an inch of good foie gras terrine. Despite these seeming affinities, pickling (by which I mean vinegar pickling) and fermenting achieve their aims through exactly opposite approaches; the fermenter creates, but the pickler destroys.

In its classic British format, such as the aforementioned sweet pickled onion or the murky pub egg, pickling constitutes a four-pronged assault against the forces of decay. A solution is made of a strong vinegar, sugar and salt, all in themselves harmful to various forms of microbial life; just in case you thought the sugar might encourage and feed any lurking yeasts or bacteria on your onions, the whole lot is heated and poured boiling over the vegetables in a final sterilisation, and the jar sealed against the living air. No life thrives in such an environment, and the only instability is the slow action of enzymes on vegetable flesh.

This is an excellent way of preserving things and it has unsurprisingly become the standard method (with additional pasteurisation) for industrial pickling; as well as satisfying the hatred of bacteria which is the lynchpin of food safety practices, it produces a consistent and stable product which is capable, on occasion, of deliciousness. Although bought pickled onions are never quite crunchy enough for me (probably that pasteurisation) their vinegar is always excellent, with the ferocious quantities of salt, acid and sugar colliding in the middle into something like balance, while good jarred cornichons are essentially perfect. Certainly they are good enough to render making them at home pointless, even if you had a ready supply of cucumbers no bigger than the top two joints of your little finger. If I did, I think I would ferment them.

green in judgement

It used to be quite common in recipe books to read that if you didn’t like coriander, parsley could easily be used instead – an instruction so entirely wrong-headed it is hard to know where to begin. Britain then being in thrall to French notions of gastronomy, perhaps parsley was considered so innocent and ubiquitous that to use it was almost the same as using no herb at all; perhaps, to put it another way, as the use of such garnishes and flavourings is all so much affectation and ornament, as they all taste the same, no-one will eat them and in any case all meals and all lives eventually come to an end, it doesn’t particularly matter which selection from the herbalist’s garden you choose to throw all over your food – I don’t know. The increased use and therefore availability of good fresh herbs (or perhaps vice versa) is, I think, a handy way in which Britain’s food renaissance can be measured.

The thing about herbs, of course, is that none of them can be substituted for any other, which is odd when you consider that almost every herb we cook with comes from one of two families. Certainly nothing can be substituted for coriander, evoking as it does either the aromas of distant shores or the poky hum of a shield bug. Experts seem to differ as to whether this difference can be explained by a difference in human biology – like the gene which supposedly allows some to taste the hidden foulness of brassicas – or in the plant itself as it varies across place and across time. Personally, I have always found it to be more unpleasantly pungent as the plant begins to bolt, as most herbs are. At any rate, it is one of those smells which, once experienced, seems to lurk always in the background of the once-loved flavour, in the same way that the sweet smell of fresh crab meat can never be entirely free of its sickly decay.

No, apart from the bitterness of plants gone to seed, and the generic greenness which comes out when you bruise or smash any leaf, every herb has a flavour which is really entire and of itself, to the extent that cooking with one new to you is really like discovering a whole new flavour, the more so as the varieties less-used for cooking tend often towards the bold and astringent – whispering Sweet Cicely being, I suppose, the honourable exception. Lovage! Its folding leaves and umbrellas of flowers mark it out as a member of parsley’s team, and it is often compared to celery, but it takes the latter’s astringency to the point where it almost tastes like mint – really, of course, it just tastes like lovage, and very fine it is too, if too strong to be used in great quantity.

One of the delights of Levantine and related cuisines is the use of herbs more as a salad or even a cooked vegetable than as a flavouring or garnish; think of a properly made tabbouleh, which contains only a hint of bulgar wheat against great fistfuls of neatly shredded mint and parsley. The use of similar amounts (the proper measure, Olia Hercules assures us, is “a shitload”) of dill in food that stretches round from Turkey and Georgia, up and through into Russia is something that many find off-putting; for me it is a shibboleth which ties together those rather disparate cuisines, and points to shared origins. Although, as with any herb, you can have too much of a good thing, it is the heavy use of dill and of flat-leaf parsley which makes me prefer the food of Turkey to my once-favourite Moroccan cuisine with its blanket of soft-leafed coriander. Context, though, must play a part; perhaps it is the heavily spiced sweetness I object to more than the herb itself, as I enjoy coriander tucked amongst fish sauce and shredded cabbage and chilli and lime.

Perhaps this kind of taxonomy of food is mistaken; many herbs are more ubiquitous than you might think, although in Britain their use seems to have always been more medicinal than culinary – although as these two pursuits have forever been intertwined, perhaps it would be better to say that their use has been homeopathic, in food and medicine alike. One bay leaf tucked into four litres of braising beef is quite sufficient, thank YOU. Personally, I like to use herbs in great handfuls, whole-leafed in salads, bunches flavouring cream or liquor, masses chopped into a sauce for cold roast mutton. The stronger ones can be chopped up with parsley, which while not featureless does act as a good carrier for more assertive flavours; I like to use the leaves of alexanders, chopped half-and-half with those of parsley, in a green sauce for braised rabbit. Some can still be used homoeopathically, though. Gill Meller tucks a couple of stalks of lovage into some poaching rhubarb, which he serves with fresh cheese; I have an urge to replace the cheese with smoked eel and serve the lot on burnt toast, pink fruit, buttery fish, the scent of mint and iron.

Dine & Wine

Making a risotto, you might think, is a fairly tedious business, which it is unless you do it properly – which is to say in the right frame of mind. One way to enter this frame is for the bottle you open to add the first splash of liquid among the toasted grains to be the one you drink throughout the cooking process; unless you are making a radicchio risotto, this will probably be a light, dry Italian white, perfect for the slight mental dislocation required to stand stirring, watching and listening for the next twenty minutes or so as your rice turns into velvet.

We are told, often, never to cook with anything we wouldn’t drink, which for most young cooks is almost meaningless. a category containing only, at a push, WKD Blue; it certainly includes no known wines. It is intended, of course, to advise us only to cook with good wines, but then what does that mean? Good for cooking, should be the answer, in which case the advice becomes tautologous and disappears. Certainly the idea that we should cook with the best wines we can buy is flawed.

If you are making, for example, a fine coq au vin, then the bosky pinot noir you rightly intend to drink with it would be wasted on the cooking; for one thing, you are going to brutalise the wine by reducing it by half, emphasising some flavours and destroying others. More importantly, though, you don’t need subtle undertones of mushroom and herb when you are in fact going to cook it with both of those things. What makes a good wine as opposed to just a nice wine, you might say, is nuance, and you can always add nuance; that’s what seasoning is for.

Leave the aforementioned bosky delight unopened for now, then, and reduce instead two bottles of the Co-op’s own claret with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a handful of dried mushrooms – if you’re making a fine coq au vin, that is. If you’re making that risotto, in which the wine element is more of a votive offering than anything else, then open something bright and white, and toast with it the coming meal, and the fellow drinkers you are cooking it for.

those in peril

I know, I’ve been really slack with this recently. I’m sorry – I’ve been working on Other Things. I still am, actually. To tide you over, here is the piece I wrote as my shortlisted YBF entry last year. Do enter, by the way, if you do food things. The party is fun, if nothing else…

– I like boats – in theory. On a family holiday to Cornwall, we hired a little boat to potter round the bay; I saw a dolphin, and nearly crashed into a container ship, towering above the rest of the harbour like a piece of the scenery. Other than that, only ferries, across the Channel or the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus or the Grand Canal, normally on bright clear days or nights, surrounded by whirling seagulls, and warm. I’ve never been on a fishing boat; I’ve never even been fishing, unless you count scooping some kind of eely thing out of the Stour and throwing it, wriggling, back in. I know that fishing boats look too small to face the wild sea; but they do.

About nine-and-a-half British fishermen die a year, from accidents at sea; this is a small amount, compared to other countries. Alaskan fishers, working in the freezing stormy darkness, have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Still, it seems a lot. I don’t think ten chefs, or food journalists, die each year from work-related injuries; bakers rarely fall into their ovens, and the good people of Blythburgh do not walk in terror of their ravenous pigs. There is a level of danger accepted in the getting of seafood which is unparalleled in the food industry, perhaps justified by a sort of knightly romance, a sense of quest and hunt, which is attached to the fishing industry. I found it strange, reading Moby-Dick, that people would do something as dangerous as actually hunting whales through the sea, simply to get lamp-oil and perfumes; commercial fishing is, at least, more useful than that. We eat the stuff, after all – and we’re always being told to eat more of it.

When you prepare food for a living, you are constantly aware of waste; the closer you get to the living food, the more there is of it. A stir-fry pack of broccoli florets is expensive, but you can use it all immediately. A bed of brassicas cut from the earth might be half or more stalk and outer leaf, but if it is in your hands you can control it, you can redefine for yourself what is and isn’t a waste product. Stalks can be shredded and fermented into kimchi, dense with mustardy flavour; leaves can be cooked as spring greens, and the actual vegetable, the distended flower-head of the plant, becomes almost an afterthought; this has happened, essentially, in meat, where the Hendersonian revolution has succeeded to the extent that my butcher now tries to flog me cheap racks of cutlets as an alternative to the bellies, breasts and shoulders we usually cook. This has happened, though few people die in a pig’s journey from sty to sausage.

So it hits me, when I am removing the heads, spines, fins, livers, eggs and guts from a pile of beautifully striped mackerel, a primordial bag of squid, darkly intelligent octopus, that perhaps it is insulting, in the face of death – of animal and of human – to throw so much away, that, more than Fergus’ common sense, it is common courtesy to wring every last scrap of meat and of flavour from these creatures, which we exchange for the lives of those, from Whitstable, from Lowestoft or from Grimsby, who live in peril on the sea.

Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.