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.

More Breakfasts with Friends

September 24, 2008

I’m now fully into the idea of the leisurely weekend breakfast.  At a friend’s of course, so you don’t have to cook it yourself.

I try to drop a hint the night before that I can’t function – let alone hold a decent conversation – before a cup of tea. Or you can shout ‘mine’s with two sugars’ from your bed when your friend tiptoes past on the way to the loo. Actually way simpler (how come I haven’t thought of this before?) – and especially good if you’ve got a hangover and shouting would hurt your throbbing head too much – is just send a text (with all the requisite kisses and exclamation marks which are de rigeur in London at the moment).

 

 

This weekend I stayed at my friend J’s house. He’s a great cook and great on the tea front too. I get a cup which is virtually a bowl, full of builder’s brew, the moment I open my eyes. Uncanny that, just like Jeeves used to turn up with Bertie Wooster’s breakfast tray exactly ten minutes after he came to morning consciousness. 

 

 

 Then it’s either porridge or poached eggs. J’s porridge is the ultimate, made solely with milk and embellished with raisins, chopped banana and apple, Greek yogurt and brown sugar. So tasty you savour every last creamy mouthful and so filling you don’t need to eat again until – well until lunch.

 

 

 But this weekend it was a poached egg occasion. As usual they were nests of golden runny perfection. J uses just-simmering water, adds salt to the water, but not vinegar as I was taught (I was also told you had to swirl the water, but in fact this means you end up with tendrils of slimy white).

 

 

The only poached eggs I can well manage are those my grandmother taught me to make, in buttered plastic compartments over a pan of water (see picture above). But J says these are buttered eggs, not poached at all, and he may be right.

 

 

J gave us three eggs and three slices of toast each. The culinary surprise here – for there always is one at a friend’s house – was that each egg was aflame with blood red drops of chilli sauce. Now I’m quite a chilli buff but chilli on my egg looked pretty testing; but one mouthful and I was hooked. Like the heat in a Bloody Mary, or those spicy morning-after potions that Jeeves presented to Wooster, it was the perfect pick-you-up.

 

 

 

Boiled Eggs in Brighton

September 5, 2008

boiled egg

boiled egg

I was in Brighton. I’d completely forgotten the racket the seagulls make when dawn breaks and the tang of salt in the air.

It was warm enough for us to eat our breakfast on the patio. Some of the back gardens already had their washing out and the shirts and sheets seemed somehow very maritime, blowing in the morning breeze.

It’s great being cooked for by friends – feel the love! Dinner is obviously fantastic, but even better- because more rare – is breakfast. It doesn’t have to be complicated; indeed the best breakfasts are not.

On this morning I was given eggs precisely boiled with runny golden yolks and the whites soft but not gooey. ‘I put them in a pan of cold water, add salt, bring to the boil, then simmer them for two minutes,’ said W.

Everything about W’s kitchen was what I call artistic – by which I mean colourful and cobbled together. Nothing as common as a set, but each plate and cup individual, passed down by family or friends or found in a sale. Even the egg cups didn’t match. Mine was plum coloured while hers was white with red dots.

Breakfast started with a bit of a shocker – W put the eggs in their cups upside down! The fat end was at the top! It threw me, briefly, this being only 10.30 on a Saturday morning, a little early for culinary surprises.

But I got to work, and you know, I could see the point. You didn’t have to delve through half an inch of white to get to the golden honey. It was there, glistening just below the surface, lightly steaming, just waiting for your soldier to be dipped in.

There was another surprise to come. Unlike lots of people I know who are watching their weightand eschew butter altogether, or think the ‘healthy’ option of margarine is the way to go, W eased a half inch slab of Lurpak onto her toast and eased it in. So of course I did the same.

It was one of the best pieces of toast I’ve had since I was child, when I ate such things regularly without compunction.

So I followed it with another. This one was topped with thick-cut marmalade, my favourite.