Gruel

”…the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.

“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, “Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!”

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

“For more !” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”

“He did, sir,” replied Bumble.

“That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “I know that boy will be hung.”’

from Dickens’ Oliver Twist


I’ve always imagined that Oliver was asking for more of a watery bland soup, perhaps like cabbage water. I wanted to make it, for the atmospheric overtones and as a light load after all that festive fare. Perhaps I could transform it into something posher and nicer and maybe use up all those leftover vegetables from the fridge.

It also sounded cheap. Bizarrely, the ‘Manual of Workhouse Cookery’ , first published in 1901, has just been brought out again, hoping to appeal to the new thrift ethos.

But it turns out gruel may be cheap but it isn’t soup. It’s more like porridge. Flour, oats or rice are boiled in water or milk. A little treacle can be added. According to researchers , gruel might have been dull and insipid, but it was also nutritionally adequate.

Which was nice for Oliver, but really rather disappointing for me. Particularly having just seen Polanski’s splendidly dark version of ‘Oliver’. It seems that Dickens was using a little imaginative licence.

Grits

Which takes me, by lateral turns of the road, to grits. What they were I have never known, except that they turn up in US literature. I was pretty sure they weren’t related to the stuff you put on icy roads to stop tyres skidding, but I did hope that they would be hard and unappealing little nuggets of something burnt and virtually inedible.

Wrong again. It seems that grits too are a type of porridge, this time made with maize. Good earthy pap to fill you up. But again, not what I wanted to make or eat.

Bubble and Squeak

So after all this meandering, wanting to cook something simple, traditional and atmospheric, and in keeping with the iciness of London in winter and the long dark East End nights, I fell back on another traditional cheap food, but English this time. Bubble and squeak. Sometimes known as ‘bubble and scrape’ (because you have to scrape it out of the pan, I think).

It’s like hash browns. Cakes of potato and any old green vegetables you happen to have, usually peas or sprouts or cabbage, are fried with onion. It’s a common accompaniment to a fry-up and therefore fondly envisaged as solid, if occasional, morning food, great to soak up last night’s alcohol.

I envisage it as the perfect thing for elevenses on New Year’s Day. If you’re up by 11 that is.

bubble-n-squeak-016

Bubble and Squeak, for 4
200g Brussels sprouts
700g potatoes, peeled and roughly cubed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
2 tbs capers (optional, though they add great ‘bite’)
olive oil
a little butter
flour for coating
fresh coriander, chopped

Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 10 minutes, until tender. Drain and mash with the butter. Season well.

Cook the sprouts in salted water for 8-10 minutes. when they’re done, drain and cool them under the cold tap. Shred them roughly.

Fry the onion and garlic in the oil until translucent.

Mix potatoes, sprouts and onion together in a bowl. Stir in the capers and chopped coriander and season well. Put a little flour on your hands and shape the mixture into 8 cakes. The flour helps the cakes to retain their shape when being fried and creates a wonderfully crispy coating from which oozes the soft potato within.

Heat a little more oil in the frying pan and cook the cakes for a few minutes on each side. Don’t put too many in the pan at once as they can be hard to manoeuvre and will fall apart if you’re rough.

Serve with eggs, fried tomatoes or whatever you fancy, or have them with salad for a healthier option. HP Brown Sauce is brilliant here, as is ketchup.

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feta-and-cranberry-salad-017

I’ve had a packet of dried cranberries sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom for the last week. I have a nibble at them when I go by, not really because they’re a superfood but because they taste so good, sharp and just chewy enough. You know, they taste red to me, like red sweets did as a child, even when it was only a matter of food colouring, not flavour at all.

But the cranberries weren’t bought simply as a snack; I had plans for them, great plans. First they were going to top a puff pastry tartlet thingy with chestnuts and mushrooms and maybe cream. Then they were going to be baked in a gingerbread, one with lots of crazily fattening and delicious extras, like ginger pieces in syrup and slivers of rich dark chocolate.

I may still make all those things. I fully intend to. But I’ll need to buy more cranberries. Mine have all gone now, gone into this salad.

A Christmas salad, I think you could call it, because of the cranberries. But that’s not the main point about it. What we have here tastes fresh, vitamin packed and rearin’ to go, in the face of all the heaviness of normal Christmas fodder.

Before I tell you how to make it, I just want to point out the options I encountered and why I did what I did. We have three strong flavours here just to start with. There are the cranberries themselves, the tangy bite of the feta cheese, and the deep earthy growl of the olives – nothing tastes more ancient Mediterranean than olives, does it? It’s enough to make you learn to read the Iliad in Greek!

So that was already quite a tremendous trio and I could have stopped there, maybe cooled them down with oil or metered them out with something bland which sucks up flavours, like couscous.

But unless you’re new at the Eat Think and be Merry household, you’ll know I didn’t. I added to them. I went the full (vegetarian) hog.

First I got out the vinegar and poured on a good dollop and then went completely over the top with crunchy wholegrain mustard. Luckily – for this was all guesswork – it was the right thing to do. It really worked.

The final feta melange tastes amazing – but strong, you know?  I had mine with roasted vegetables, garlic, cherry tomatoes and red onion, and then, to ease it out, a little green salad, undressed.

feta-and-cranberry-salad-008

Feta, Black Olive and Cranberry Salad, for 4
for the roasted vegetables
1 leek, cleaned and chopped
1 red onion, peeled and sliced into wedges
5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
10 cherry tomatoes
3 tbs olive oil

for the feta medley
100g feta
3 tbs cranberries
3 tbs pitted black olives
1 tbs olive oil
1-2 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard

salad leaves

Set the oven to 220C. Put the vegetables in to a large roasting pan, season well and drizzle over the oil. I left most of the tomatoes whole, but cut them up if they are very big. Roast for about 20 minutes, until well done, then cool.

Crumble the feta into a bowl and add the cranberries. I chopped up the olives before adding those in too. Stir in the mustard, oil and vinegar.

That’s it. Serve with salad leaves. A healthy and fast lunch for Christmas.

feta-and-cranberry-salad-022

Chinese Spiced Red Cabbage

December 16, 2008

Red cabbage it may be called but it’s not red at all. It’s more purple than anything. And goes midnight blue when blanched.

Actually, the bluer bits are just the colour I wanted to paint my room when I was 13. That marvellous fantasy room was going to have purple walls and a yellow ceiling. Or sometimes the other way round, mustard walls and a purpley-blue ceiling. I lay in bed, hands behind my head looking up, and dreamed and dreamed about that room. Sometimes there were also painted stars up there twinkling down on me. Or even better, luminous stars, a whole galaxy of them.

All we would ever play would be Led Zeppelin or the Best of Cream.

But no, it didn’t happen. No surprises there. And now I live in the usual off-white interior of any London flat. Though one day, maybe, one day when I’m very old indeed…

To get back to the cabbage. I made this dish with Sam in mind. Have I mentioned Sam? She’s the girlfriend of my flatmate D.  (And why are some of these names on my blog given in full and some remain initials? It makes no sense does it?  So OK then, D’s full name is David. There. Now you know. Happy?)

I’m sure Sam would like purple walls. Hey, now I come to think of it – happy coincidence! – that’s what she’s painted their bedroom! And it looks great! They have a beaded curtain too, instead of wardrobe doors. No don’t worry, it’s a modern beaded curtain, not hippy-chic, or only insofar as it’s an ironic retro glance at 1973.

Sam is a yoga teacher, and maybe that’s why she’s obsessed with chillies. It’s all that time spent doing sun salutations in Andhra Pradesh. Chillies go in all her food, even more so than in mine. I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean in everything, from mashed potato to full-blown Biryani. Our fridge is full of them, they tumble in little packets from the plastic shelves in the door, green, red, Thai – you name it, we’ve got it. And that’s not to mention the assorted sauces – green jalapeno sauce, jerk barbecue sauce…It’s Chilli Central here.

So the chillies were for Sam, and once I’d gone down that route the whole thing began to come together.

I’d always known it had to be a new version of red cabbage. The traditional cloyingly sweet variety with lots of cloves and apple may go fine with pork, but with anything else it’s all at odds, one of those gawky types, arms akimbo, who never really fit in with the crowd.

For me, red cabbage has to zing. That may not be a technical cooking term but you get my drift. It has to have bite.

And so, with that in mind, some red onion, parsley, capers and some serious chopping later, I came up with this. Yes, it may look like just another vegetable medley. But have a forkful. Good, eh? Just what you need  to jazz up your Christmas dinner? Not that unlike the Brussels sprouts you know and love, but with with its own gentle nudge towards the Chinese.

spiced-red-cabbage

Chinese Spiced Red Cabbage, for 4

1 red cabbage, about 500g, finely sliced
1 red onion, sliced
2 green chillies, de-seeded and finely sliced
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp Chinese five spice
1-2 tbs Balsamic vinegar
1 level tbs sugar
2 tbs capers
1-2 tsp vegetarian green curry paste (you can get this from health food stores)
chopped fresh parsley
cayenne, to taste (I used a teaspoonful)
salt, pepper

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and give the chillies and onion a couple of minutes. Now throw in the red cabbage. Once it’s all cooking nicely, turn the heat down, cover, and cook for up to 10 minutes, all depending how crisp you like your vegetables.

Add the five spice, the vinegar, sugar, capers, curry paste, salt and pepper, and cook for another few minutes.

Stir in the parsley and a modicum of cayenne and serve.

Just say yes

December 11, 2008

pear-and-almond-tart-022

You know how you’re meant to lose your sweet tooth as you grow up?  Where once you would save a pocketful of pennies to buy sickly gobstoppers that change colour as you suck them, or sherbet fountains with a stick of licorice in them, how you move on as an adult, to Camembert and Stilton and – and Stinking Bishop?

Back then your six year-old self would go for for raspberry jam, or golden syrup, or maybe even condensed milk to top your white sliced sandwich. But now, maturer, wiser, a little more boring perhaps,  now you don’t eat jam, white bread or butter, at all. It’s all grilled Halloumi and asparagus.

Now you have a grown-up job and you go to grown-up places like bars and you eat grown-up savoury things, right?

Well no, actually. Forget all that. It’s all a load of peppermint humbugs.

Deep down in every grown-up stomach an ever-ravenous inner child still cries out for strawberry sponge and Mars bars and chocolate biscuits. Yes you can ignore him/her for a lot of the time, but really, now in the lead-up to the biggest gorge-fest of the year, why should you?

OK, I think I’ve made my point pretty strongly here. You’ve got it, right? For today, we are going to indulge that six year-old. Today is calorific freedom day.

Today boring things like waistlines are well hidden with saggy jumpers and we can get down to more important matters. Today we can properly appreciate this goddess of the kitchen, this – um – masterpiece? success? excess? Excess, I think, is the best choice of a word here. It’s a pretty apposite description of this baby.

At every bend of today’s culinary road when a choice is needed – should it be richer or less rich? – should it be sweeter or less sweet? – at every one of them we are going for more. More everything.

It’s just that sort of day.

So here we have a pear tart, right? All well and good you might say. But pear tarts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sedate on a bed of flaky pastry and some soar on puff. In some, pear halves (stalks included) are mulled in red wine before baking, or sometimes in a syrup with vanilla and lemon (And yes that last one is a good one, I have to say. But no, I didn’t do it today. It wasn’t quite sweet enough).

Some lie on a bed of rich custard and some are served with cream, or creme anglaise, or even chocolate sauce.

All are wonderful.

But for today, I wanted saute-ed pears, I knew that. Because? Well because I have a thing for them at the moment. (They are extremely good with ice-cream. Just them, vanilla ice, that’s it. Maybe a shot of calvados poured lovingly over the top. ) So they had to go in.

Then there was the almond thing. Pears and almonds are a match made in heaven, up there with chocolate sauce and ice-cream. I think on that we can all agree. So there was no question about the almonds.

But marzipan…marzipan is more difficult, a more complex question. It elicits such a mixed response. So many of our marzipanal memories are dull or dire; of wedding cakes so heavy you just have to slip them behind a potted plant when no-one is looking and walk away with nonchalance.

And yet, marzipan can be so very good. Marzipan smoothed out with cream and thinly spread, as it is in this recipe, is something different. Rich, yes. But a richness that you will know is unquestionably right.

So today, whenever I say, ‘More of this?’ – the answer is always, ‘Yes’.

‘More pears?’

‘Of course, Stephen.’

‘More sugar?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Another slice of home-made pear and almond tart?’

‘Oh. I really shouldn’t. Well go on then, just a small one…No not that small.’

Pear and Almond Tart
(makes a baking tray’s worth)

4 firm pears, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise, and cored.
(I used conference pears. Unripe is good)
40-60g butter
40-60g caster sugar
150g white marzipan, cut into chunks
3-4 tbs double cream
500g puff pastry
icing sugar
20g flaked almonds

Set the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. (‘Yes Stephen!’)

In a large pan melt the butter and saute the pears gently for about 5 minutes. Pour on the sugar and cook them for another 5 minutes, turning occasionally. They will gradually take on a quite delicious warm brown colour with darker patches where they’ve charred slightly. You may want to do them in 2 batches, as I did.

Lift the pears on to a plate to cool, leaving behind excess sugary goo.

Whizz up the marzipan with the cream.

Roll out the pastry pretty thinly, about a third of a centimetre thick maybe, and lay it out on an oven dish. Now spread it with the marzipan cream. Cover that with the pears, as prettily arranged as you can manage.

Shall we now sprinkle our tart with a little icing sugar? Why, yes!

And then a scattering of flaked almonds? Of course!

Then pop the tart in the oven for 20 minutes. When you take it out it will be golden, crisp at the edges and you can dust with more icing sugar if you like. And of course you will like.

You can serve this on its own. Or with cream. Creme fraiche would be my preference. And it’s good hot or cold.

Let out your belt a couple of notches, and enjoy.

asked my friend Shaun, for about the fourth time.

He adores Christmas. Yesterday late afternoon, when it was dark, he took me to see the crib in Trafalgar Square.

It was all lit up, a stylised kind of tableau. The characters stood at a distance from each other, gazing sombrely at the infant Jesus, who was far too huge for anyone to pick up and hug. In the size sense the whole thing was out of whack.  Joseph, who was lying down on his side gazing at Jesus, was not much bigger than his son.

But it worked somehow. It looked a bit homemade and rough around the edges, but with something grave and beautiful about it.

There was a choir singing in the square, dressed in white. A vicar gave a reading after that, though I didn’t really follow it because I was so cold.

A crowd had gathered to listen and watch, standing under the huge Christmas tree with its silver lights. The tree’s donated to London every year, so it said on the placard, by the people of Oslo, in gratitude for our help during the Second World War.

‘Aren’t you feeling just a bit festive now?’ said Shaun. ‘Doesn’t it make you feel like a child again?

‘It’s bloody freezing.”

But damn it, I did feel rather Christmassy, I had to admit, at least to myself. And there was I hoping to grouch my way through the season.

And it’s been downhill all the way, as far as successful grouching goes, since then.

I woke up this morning thinking about roasted chestnuts. Then I looked up recipes for marrons glaces. Luckily they were too long-winded and complicated for me to try, at least today.

And then I made this, a chestnut soup. Suitable for any day from now until New Year. But particularly good I would have thought, for Boxing Day.

So pretty damn festive, as far as soups go.

Oh, and it’s also extremely good. And easy.

Let me say that again. This is actually one of the tastiest, and simplest, winter soups, that I have ever eaten.

chestnuts

Chestnut and Sweet Potato Soup, for 4
60g butter
200g peeled and cooked chestnuts
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic, chopped
1 inch ginger, grated
2 sweet potatoes – about 600g – peeled and chopped into chunks
1 litre stock
2-3 tbs double cream
dash lemon juice
cayenne pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and fry the onion, garlic, ginger, chestnuts and potato chunks for about 10 minutes.

Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover the saucepan, and cook for about 10 more minutes until the potatoes are tender. Now add the lemon juice.

Take off the heat and blend the soup.

Stir in the cream and serve sprinkled with cayenne.

okra-and-cauliflower-balti-002

Balti is a Punjabi food which, apparently, takes its name from the pot in which it’s cooked and served. This pot is ‘balty’ in Hindi and ‘balde’ in Portuguese, according to Wikipedia – and why the Portuguese link, you tell me. I’d love to know. Maybe the Portuguese colonised the area, or had trade routes with those parts of Pakistan and North India, several centuries back.

Whatever the reason, it’s hot dry curry, and we English have adopted it as pretty well a national dish. It’s hugely popular over here. Curry restaurants in Birmingham are affectionately known as ‘Balti’ houses and the town even has a ‘Balti Mile’.

Wikipedia (don’t you just love it, where else would you find out this trivia?) also tells me that there’s a Balti house in Australia named the Brum Balti (Brum being UK regional lingo for Birmingham). There they only play music by 70s Birmingham bands like the Moody Blues and the Electric Light Orchestra. True! Isn’t that a weird mix of cultures! And wouldn’t it be great to visit?

In the absence of a ticket to the Brum Balti, I’m stuck here in wet London and Balti is exactly the food I need. It may be December, but forget mince pies and shops full of Christmas decorations. I’ll do all that festive stuff when the time comes. For today I want heat. I want to be warm again.

Chillies! Spices! Exotic vegetables with strange names! (which you should top and tail but not slice – the okra I mean – or the seeds inside are prone to get a bit slimy).

Eat this with naan bread or chapatis. Not rice. And another thing; I used vegetable oil, because I had it, but ghee (a type of clarified butter), would be more authentic and taste even better.

Cauliflower, Okra and Coriander Balti, for 4
3 green chillies, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3cm cube of ginger, peeled and grated
3 tbs vegetable oil or ghee
1 medium onion, sliced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbs cumin seeds
juice half a lemon
1 level tsp salt
500g potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized chunks
a quarter of a cauliflower, about 225g, split into florets
200g okra, topped and tailed
250ml light (ie not too strong) vegetable stock

for the garnish
1tomato
1red chilli
chopped fresh coriander

In a large frying pan, heat the oil and add the green chillies, ginger, garlic and onion. After a few minutes, when the onion has softened, add the cumin seeds, lemon juice, turmeric, garam masala, and salt. Heat, stirring constantly, for another few minutes.

Add the potatoes and mix them in well. Partially cover the pan and let the potatoes cook gently for about 10 more minutes. Give them a prod every now and then.

Stir in the okra, the cauliflower florets and then the stock. Partially cover the pan again and leave to cook for 15 minutes. By the end of that times the vegetables should all be tender, but still have some ‘bite’.

While they’re cooking, make the garnish, which is dead simple. Just finely chop the tomato, the red chilli and the coriander and mix them together. The dry heat this garnish creates perfectly offsets the richer notes of the vegetables.

Serve with naan. And yoghurt raita for when your mouth sears off.