18 March, 2012

Cooking with Pomiane, by Edouard de Pomiane

Cooking with Pomiane

Elizabeth David was a fan of Pomiane; in fact she wrote the introduction to this edition, beginning “I love Docteur de Pomiane’s work. In fact I owe him a great debt.” She likes him because he doesn’t just give us instructions, but explains why: “He has made us understand our actions. We know what we have done right — it is just as important — as well as where we may have gone wrong.”

This is a neglected cookbook, but Pomiane is an entertaining writer, and his recipes are often accompanied by anecdotes. When I read the introduction to Poulet Tamara, I was immediately captivated.

According to a story denied by some Georgians, the country was ruled in the twelfth century by Tamara, a queen of rare beauty who, having cast out her drunken husband, the Muscovite prince Bogolubski, decided to drive her lover, the poet Rousthaveli, author of the marvellous poem The Leopard Skin, mad with jealousy. To inflame the passions of the wretched man she took lovers at random, welcoming them in her castle on a crag above the Georgian highway over the Caucasus, and preparing with her own hands the principal dish of the banquet she offered them. The chance lover was overwhelmed with wine and caresses. Next morning he was hurled to his death over a precipice which one can see to this day.

This dish is the one Tamara served to her doomed guests, and Pomiane promises “a completely novel gastronomic sensation”. Having already experienced one of these in the form of his wonderful tomates à la crème, I quickly scanned the recipe to check that I had all the ingredients. It looked like an excellent way to use up the leeks, turnips, onions and carrots in the veggie box, and I had some walnuts that needed using too, so the decision was made.

But oh Docteur Pomiane, how you deceived me! Put the chicken in a heavy casserole with the onions, carrots and leeks, the herbs and spices, and some water, he tells us. So I duly did. Then looking at the next step, I find he’s now telling me to finely chop the onions and garlic that are currently happily simmering with the chicken, and soften them in butter as the first step in making the sauce. Oh well, I’ll chop another onion. But wait … now I read the recipe more closely and discover that the turnips in the ingredients list are never mentioned again. Hmm, maybe they were supposed to go in with the chicken, instead of the onions? But won’t they make the sauce taste of turnip? Too late now anyway — I’ll just have to eliminate them from the recipe.

So I can’t really claim that what I ended up with is exactly what Tamara served to her lovers. Basically you poach the chicken with vegetables (possibly including turnips) for half an hour, then remove the chicken and roast it for another half hour. The strained stock from the poaching is reduced and used to thin a sauce made of fried onions and garlic, pounded walnuts, vinegar, and egg yolks. Theoretically you pour the sauce over the cut-up chicken, leave it to stand overnight, and eat it cold, but after a day’s mountain walking Steve didn’t seem keen on waiting till breakfast time to eat his dinner. So we ate it hot.

The sauce was … interesting, but really not an attractive colour — a greyish pink. Still, roast chicken is roast chicken, so it wasn’t a total failure. And the vegetables and stock will make a nice soup — maybe I’ll even add the turnips.

This hasn’t put me off Pomiane anyway — it’s probably just a result of poor copy-editing. The book includes a lot of simple, homely French classics, including a reliable recipe for gratin dauphinois which illustrates his talent for explaining the “why”. He mentions three different ways of cooking it, and then explains why his method, which involves adding a tiny amount of flour to the cream, is the best: it prevents the cream from separating.

Finally, like Elizabeth David’s, his prose is a pleasure to read for itself, even if you aren’t planning on cooking anything.

5 February, 2012

French Country Kitchen, by Geraldene Holt: braised chicory with mushrooms

French Country Kitchen is very similar in approach to Jenny Baker’s Simple French Cuisine. I was given Jenny Baker’s book around the time we bought our holiday house in the Languedoc, so I kept it here to provide inspiration. We had a very rudimentary kitchen then, so it was useful having a book of delicious recipes using local ingredients and requiring no fancy equipment. I tend not to pick it up much now; it may soon make an appearance in this neglected cookbook series!

Like Jenny Baker, Geraldene Holt is a British woman who came to southern France, fell in love with it, and being a keen cook, collected traditional recipes from friends and neighbours. I picked up a second-hand copy of French Country Kitchen recently; it’s out of print, so it can be bought for pennies on Amazon. I love the fact that the Internet has made it so easy to find out-of-print books.

This book is organised by ingredients — there’s a chapter on mushrooms for example, one on olives, one on chestnuts, almonds, and walnuts, more conventional ones on poultry and beef, and a whole chapter on the pig, covering every part of it of course., including making brawn and your own sausages.

I’m not a great meat-eater, so I decided to try the recipe for endive belge étuvée aux champignons, or braised chicory with mushrooms. Chicory is something I only discovered when I came to France, and I love its bitter flavour. The result was delicious and makes a change from our usual ways of cooking chicory (wrapped in ham and covered in cheese sauce, or braised with chicken). If you’re vegetarian you could leave the bacon out, although it does add an essential saltiness and a touch of fat to cut the bitterness of the chicory. I might add a splash of soy sauce if I left out the bacon.

The recipe specifies cultivated mushrooms, and that’s what I used. But I reckon it would be even better with wild ones — cèpes or chanterelles. If you’re making a vegetarian version I would recommend the tastiest mushrooms you can find. As fresh tomatoes are banned in our house from October to May, I used a spoonful of sun-dried tomato paste instead of the tomato, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

I like the homely approach of this book, and like the Jenny Baker book it is an excellent choice to take on holiday to France with you, if you like cooking and buying produce at French markets.
Recipe for French Country Kitchen, by Geraldene Holt: braised chicory with mushrooms »

29 January, 2012

A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe

Cardamom rice with prunes

I’m continuing my trawl through the reserve collection.This claims to be a “vegetarian” cookbook, although a few of the recipes include fish or shellfish. It is definitely not the 70s/early 80s style of vegetarian cooking with lots of wholewheat stodge and mushy lentils. Like Nadine Abensur’s, Annie Bell’s dishes are creative and elegant, letting the flavours of fresh vegetables shine. This book is clearly geared towards entertaining, as it’s organised as a series of seasonal menus, most involving five or six dishes.

Not that this is a criticism. Her philosophy of vegetarian cooking is that rather than having a “main” ingredient (a chunk of protein) and some side dishes, a meal can be composed of a harmonious selection of smaller dishes. It’s a philosophy I like, even though it’s more work, so is likely to happen only on special occasions.

I haven’t cooked any complete menu from this book, but I have bookmarked a number of recipes. Actually, in true neglected cookbook style I hadn’t cooked anything at all from it till today, when I decided to try the cardamom rice with prunes.

Rice pudding and stewed prunes … hmm, sounds like British canteen fare. Happily, it is not. I’ve always liked rice pudding, although I do normally prefer to eat it hot, with jam or maple syrup. The cardamom makes this version decidedly un-English. The prunes are not an unappetising brown mush, but whole pruneaux d’Agen simmered in an Armagnac-laced syrup with cinnamon and vanilla. If I’d done the whole menu, I would also have served spaghetti marrow and vermicelli with watercress cream, cannelloni omelettes filled with spinach and gruyère, with a tomato sauce aux fines herbes, and a green salad with avocado and toasted walnuts. You can tell she used to run a restaurant.

Anyway, here’s my version of the rice. It turned out a bit runny, and over-sweet to my taste, so I’ve adjusted the quantities slightly to reflect this. It was very nice cold, with the prunes making an attractive colour contrast. And of course it can all be prepared hours in advance — fortunately, since the rest of the menu seems to involve an awful lot of last-minute frying, pasta cooking, and salad dressing. The recipe seems long, but really it’s very simple and not time-consuming. I’ll definitely keep this book because even if the complete menus are too much work there are a lot of small, stylish dishes. It’s out of print — so if you want to give it a try you can buy it for a penny on Amazon!
Recipe for A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe »

2 December, 2011

Elizabeth David’s Christmas: potato, tomato and celery soup

An Elizabeth David book in the reserve collection? Yes, really! This was a Christmas present a few years ago, and I confess I’d forgotten I had it, so I pounced on it with a cry of delight. It was actually published posthumously; in her preface her editor Jill Norman says they’d discussed the concept off and on for years, but it never came to anything, so after Elizabeth’s death she was surprised to find a box with a pile of notes and clippings for the book, and even an introduction. So she pulled the material together and published it.

Many of the recipes are from ED’s other books, but it’s nice to have all these seasonal recipes in one place. Not that ED was much of a fan of the traditional British Christmas. She got bombarded with calls from friends and family asking how long to to cook the turkey or the pudding, or saying they’d lost the recipe for Cumberland sauce so could she give it them again — to the point where she printed a pamphlet of the most popular recipes and handed it out to them. Classic ED:

If I had my way — and I shan’t — my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.

What frenetic cook preparing for a family Christmas can’t empathise with that in the days leading up to “the Great Too Long”? It certainly makes a refreshing change from other Christmas cookbooks.

That being said, although there are token recipes for traditional Christmas food like mincemeat and Christmas pudding, much of the focus of this book is on simple but impressive small dishes that can be prepared ahead, pâtés and terrines that can be kept in the fridge for nibbling, and better-than-average ways of using leftovers (including one of my all-time favourite leftover dishes, émincé de volaille au fromage). And like all of ED’s books it is designed to be read for pleasure, not just to cook from. I happily spent an afternoon lounging on the sofa by the fire reading it while my untended bread dough bubbled over the edge of the pan.

Happily, the organic veg box provided all I needed for a simple soup of tomato, leek and celery. She writes “This is one of the most subtly flavoured of all these vegetable soups … a good soup with which to start the Christmas dinner.” It was indeed. Celery is something I don’t like as a vegetable, but as a herb it adds a nice peppery edge to soups and stews. My tail-end-of-season tomatoes weren’t the best, but they did the job — if I make it again at Christmas I’ll use tinned ones in preference to tasteless fresh ones (one day I’m going to start a campaign to ban the sale of fresh tomatoes between October and May).

Unfortunately, the box also contained parsnips, for the third week in a row. So I decided to give her cream of parsnips and ginger with eggs a go. I got as far as cooking and mouli-ing the parsnips and adding the ginger, and the result tasted so unutterably foul that I almost threw it straight in the bin. We just had soup and cheese and biscuits that evening. I don’t think I can blame Elizabeth David for this though — I just don’t like parsnips, and somehow mashing them makes them taste more parsnippy than just roasting would.

This book will definitely stay in my collection. And it’s a good Christmas gift for foodies as well, a reminder of how truly good food writing is impervious to fashion. So much so that the modish soft-focus photos that the publishers obviously felt had to be in any modern cookbook are entirely superfluous. Elizabeth David’s words are enough
Recipe for Elizabeth David’s Christmas: potato, tomato and celery soup »

6 November, 2011

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book

Belgian bun cake: Margaret Costa's Four Seasons

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book has always lived in the reserve collection. I honestly don’t know why. Nigel Slater himself says: ‘If I had to choose only one book to cook from for the rest of my life it would be this one.’ Picking it up and starting to read, I instantly saw that she and I were of the same mind. The preface begins:

Professional chefs are notoriously bad at giving recipes for domestic kitchens. They are unable to think in small quantities for a start, they are maddeningly vague about times and temperatures, they use words which create total, unreasoning panic in the mind of the ordinary cook: déglacer, dégorger, tomber, revenir, beurre manié — no wonder we lose our heads.

Even the words we think we recognise — blend, beat, sieve — all mean something different to them because they use different equipment. And then they are used to having things to hand. “Garnish with truffles,” they cry, “cook in clarified butter, stuff with a duxelles, finish with a spoonful of hollandaise.” “The sauce? Oh, just a simple jus lié with the addition of a little demi-glace.”

She sums up everything I don’t like about 99% of cookbooks by professional chefs (the Roux brothers are a very honourable exception). And she was married to a chef! I like her introduction to the canapé section too:

Just listen to the next big party you go to: a party where there are enough nice little things to eat has a warm, contented sound, a sort of purr, quite different from the harsh, strident noise where there’s nothing but alcohol and cigarette smoke.

I’d love to go to a party catered by her; her “nice little things to eat” are all mouth-watering, and most are easy to do.

Four Seasons cookbook

It’s a wide-ranging book, organised roughly by season (some dishes can be cooked all the year round though) — and within each season by theme. So Winter for example includes chapters like Christmas Classics, Party Pieces, Comforting Breakfasts, Winter Soups, Cooking with Wine (a sign of the 1970s that you had to have a special chapter for this!), Proper Puddings, Marmalade … Costa is from the same school as Jane Grigson: erudition worn lightly, with unpretentious yet elegant and classic dishes covering the whole range from dinner parties through everyday meals to preserves and bread baking. Perhaps part of the reason I don’t use this book more is precisely because Jane Grigson is my first port of call when I’m looking for this type of book.

Again like those traditional writers (Grigson, Elizabeth David, Patience Grey) this is a book you can read for sheer pleasure, even if you don’t cook a thing from it. The party pieces, the “proper puddings”, and the preserving chapters are the highlight of the book for me. So this post isn’t exactly a vintage feast, just a sampling of a couple of items from the book (which now sprouts a forest of bookdarts heralding future cooking sessions).

I have never cooked chutney in my life, apart from a brief and fairly successful flirtation with mango chutney. This is possibly due to traumatic memories of a house reeking of vinegar from top to bottom when my mother was engaged in her annual days-long chutney-making session, during which the rest of the family would move out to the garden for the duration. So it’s perhaps surprising that the first recipe I chose from here was the tomato and red pepper chutney, from the very comprehensive preserving chapter. Partly because I bought a big bag of peppers from the market for 3 euros, partly inspired by the chutney-making fervour displayed at the Cottage Smallholder forum.

Costa doesn’t weigh you down with instructions — she just tells you to mince or chop everything up, put it in a pan with the vinegar, sugar, and spices, and “simmer till thick”. The suggested 2 hours’ simmering stretched to 5 hours; I think my simmer must have been too low. But it did eventually acquire a jammy consistency, and I decided this was good enough. Into the jars it went, looking very convincingly like chutney. Verdict in a month or so, when it’s matured! Meanwhile, all the windows are open to eliminate the vinegar smell.

While that was bubbling away, I made some Belgian bun cake, because I’d made some lemon curd a couple of days ago. This is basically a rich brioche dough, spread with lemon curd and sprinkled with candied peel and currants, rolled up and baked. It turns out like a lemony panettone, best eaten while still slightly warm and fragrant from the oven. Delicious, and I already have plans for a very luxurious bread and butter pudding with part of it.

I won’t give the recipe for the chutney here, because I’m waiting to see how it turns out. But here’s my version of the Belgian brioche.
Recipe for Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book »

30 October, 2011

Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book: Curried Parsnip Soup

Curried parsnip soup

Following my last post about neglected cookbooks, I’m feeling a bit daunted by my reserve collection — I’ve just counted them, and there are 70 of them! I wouldn’t say Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book is “neglected” exactly — it sits on the living room shelves, not in the reserve collection — but it tends to only get pulled out when I need ideas for the contents of the weekly organic veggie box. Also I think it has been overshadowed by the plethora of TV chef books like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day. While I’m sure they are excellent, Jane Grigson has stood the test of time and her books are still true classics. As I’m fond of repeating, she is a calm and reassuring kitchen companion whose recipes have the air of trusted family favourites. Most of them are not fancy, they rarely use exotic, hard-to-find, expensive ingredients, and they are generally easy to do. Jane isn’t really the place to go for exotic; most of her recipes are European, with particular emphasis on French and British cooking, along with a few Middle Eastern recipes.

The reason I got the book out today is because there were parsnips in my veggie box. I’m not a great fan of parsnips, and happily they are rarely seen in France. They are considered to be pig food, so you don’t see them in shops, and when you do they are referred to as légumes oubliés, with the implication that they are best forgotten. But I suddenly remembered Jane Grigson’s curried parsnip soup, which was all the rage in the 1970s. I haven’t cooked it for literally decades, but it is well worth reviving. Even parsnip-haters like me like it.

This book is ideal if you have a vegetable box delivered, or you grow your own, because it’s organised by vegetable, in alphabetical order from artichokes to yams. Simply flip it open to the one you’re having difficulty using up. Each chapter starts with a pretty line drawing of the vegetable in question (no fancy photos, this was the 1970s!) and a short discussion of its provenance, history and use. There are so many interesting snippets of information here, although parsnips were evidently a challenge to make interesting, since we learn here that Boris Pasternak’s name means “parsnip”.

Then there’s a “How to choose and prepare” section that gives general advice. And finally a selection of recipes. The parsnip chapter is one of the more limited chapters — buttered parsnips, creamed parsnips, the famous soup, a couple of gratins, and a soufflé — but for more versatile vegetables you are spoilt for choice. She often gives a few variations or other ideas — for example at the end of the leek chapter she suggests preparing small ones in the same way as cauliflower à la grecque, which I duly did, and very nice they were too. With all these resources, I rarely fail to find something that at least gives me an idea for a dish, even if I don’t follow her recipe exactly. It’s not a vegetarian book, but meat plays a very minor role here.

At the end, there’s an appendix, which I’d actually never looked at until today. It tells you how to prepare various classic French vegetable mixtures such as mirepoix and julienne, and also includes a whole raft of classic sauces, from the common (bechamel, mayonnaise) to the more unusual (skordalia, Balkan walnut and garlic sauce). Then there are a few recipes for stuffing, a pancake batter recipe, and, oddly, a recipe for pitta bread on the grounds that they can be stuffed with vegetables. So it really is a compendium of vegetable cookery, for anyone from a beginner to an expert, and a great companion for any frugal cook.

Her Fruit Book is arranged along the same lines and is equally wonderful, if not more so, since it includes the recipe for Best British Pudding Ever, Springfield pear cake. It’s no coincidence that reviews of Jane’s books on Amazon always include at least a couple saying “I bought this because my old copy fell apart from constant use”.
Recipe for Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book: Curried Parsnip Soup »

10 October, 2011

The Art of the Tart

mjuk toscakaka

Like almost all keen cooks, I can’t resist buying cookbooks even though I know I already own far too many, with enough recipes in them to last several lifetimes of daily cooking. But even if I don’t cook from them, I love to browse and fantasize about cooking elaborate recipes, or just admire the photos (at least in modern books).

But still. The shelves in our living cum dining room cum kitchen are full, and the reserve collection has overflowed onto the landing upstairs. Some books are well-thumbed, others are pristine and have never risked the slightest gravy splatter or smudge of grease. It was time to take action, I decided, and cook at least one recipe from each of these neglected tomes, if only to establish whether they are unjustifiably taking up shelf space. I don’t know how long it will take me because I haven’t even dared to count them. But along the way I’ll review the books and hopefully find some hidden gems.

I started with The Art of the Tart, by Tamasin Day-Lewis. This lives in the reserve collection, even though I have actually cooked a couple of recipes from it. I’m not usually a fan of “single-dish” books (it was a present) — but it’s true that the tart is a very versatile concept. And some of these aren’t even what I would call a tart, in that they don’t involve pastry. There’s so much you can do with pastry and storecupboard ingredients, from a down-to-earth quiche made from the leftovers in the fridge to a drop-dead elegant dessert. And after all, many of my most successful and popular signature dishes are tarts (see the list at the end of this post).

I’m not keen on the arch title (she even published a follow-up called Tarts with tops on), or Tamasin’s wordy style and the odd bit of name-dropping, but there are some gems all the same. The recipes here range from the obvious (quiche lorraine, apple pie, tarte tatin) to the exotic or just odd (a tart filled with aligot??). The little tomato and prosciutto tarts on the cover are both beautiful and delicious — ideal dinner-party starter material — and quick to make into the bargain. I don’t usually like chocolatey desserts, but I made an exception for Simon Hopkinson’s chocolate tart (in the “Other people’s tarts” section).

For the purposes of this blog post, I started with cheese strata — one of the “not a tart” recipes. It’s basically a savoury bread and butter pudding. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before to make something like this, given that buying baguettes inevitably results in a surplus of stale bread. A big chunk of two-day old pain de campagne, an ancient bit of Comté only fit for grating, some eggs approaching their sell by date, mustard, onion and cream. The result is well worth the status of default dinner, and I’ll certainly make it again. I skipped the lardons, but some sun-dried tomatoes would be a nice addition and would keep it vegetarian.

Next, I quickly cooked Mjuk Toscakaka, one of several Swedish recipes. This is another one that is easy to do and uses what you have on hand (and doesn’t involve pastry) — basically a simple sponge cake with a slightly crackly, fudgy topping of sugar and flaked almonds. On its own, a bit dull, and cream didn’t make it any more interesting. But it was considerably livened up with the complementary addition of some Italian cherries in syrup (an impulse buy in Lidl when they were having one of their Italian weeks). Any tart poached fruit would go well with this.

Verdict: I wouldn’t rush out and buy this book if I didn’t have it, but it’s a lot more useful and attractive than I expected it to be. It’s staying on the shelf!

My artful tarts

Apple crumble tart
Apricot frangipane tart
Courgette, cheese, and herb tart
Filo tarts with goat’s cheese
French tarte aux pommes
Pineapple tarte tatin
Prune and Armagnac tart
Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart
Tarte à la moutarde
Tarte au citron
Tarte aux myrtilles, or bilberry tart
Tarte Tatin

6 March, 2011

Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton

The Best of Eliza Acton

It was Eliza who inspired me to try the vintage feast idea in the first place, so I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. The official “challenge” is over, but I like these old cookbooks so much that I have decided to continue an occasional series.

The book I have is an old Penguin, The Best of Eliza Acton, published in 1968, edited by Elizabeth Ray and with a foreword by … who else? Elizabeth David. You can’t read much Elizabeth David without discovering that she and Eliza are kindred spirits. Jane Grigson drew on Acton heavily for her English Food, and both she and David clearly thought more highly of Eliza than of the better-known Mrs Beeton.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1845, when Eliza was 46, and stayed in print for over 50 years. This 350-page paperback holds only a fraction of the hundreds of brief, precise recipes the original book must have contained. Her crisp prose, sharp asides, and succinct instructions that assume the reader is already a competent cook cannot fail to recall Elizabeth David, so it’s hardly surprising the latter admired her so much : “Over and over again,” she writes, “I have marvelled at the illuminating and decisive qualities of Miss Acton’s recipes.” Discussing the fact that Acton was eclipsed by later inferior writers, David suggests that it was because she was “a child of the eighteenth century …. living in the manner and writing of a style of English domestic life already doomed.” And she concludes, “Temporary eclipse has often been the fate of great innovators. In a way it is posterity’s compliment to genius.” And similarly, when the Jamies and Nigellas of this world have been and gone, Elizabeth David will still be with us.

So after all that, what about the food? I was spoilt for choice here. All sorts of things tempted me: fried potato ribbons, which sound very much like rather fantastical potato crisps, cut in long spirals; jumbles; cheesecake with no cheese in it; the famous cabinet pudding. In the end I went for a very simple menu.

To start: carrot soup. Eliza has two basic recipes for this, but follows them with a recipe for a variation: “Buchanan carrot soup (Excellent)”. With that recommendation, how could I not try it? It was delicious, deep orange with a zing from the curry powder, making it much more successful than Ruth Lowinsky’s bland 20th-century version. My only criticism was that I don’t particularly like the texture of cooked rice in my soup; when I reheated the leftovers for lunch, I liquidised it. Next up: Chicken Burdwan, which with a few adjustments could well become a regular standby for using up leftover roast chicken, and is an “Indian” dish that would certainly appeal to French people. It’s a feast of 18th-century flavours.

For dessert, I found the potato pudding irresistible. Years ago we were served a dessert of tiny dishes of impossibly smooth potato puree flavoured with vanilla at my then-favourite restaurant, Les Feuillants in Céret (sadly now gone). It was fantastic, and potatoes are my favourite vegetable, so I was certainly prepared to try another potato dessert. Of course it was nothing like that creamy dish at les Feuillants, but it did seem strangely familiar. After a couple of spoonfuls I realised it was very like the bottom part of a Queen of Puddings. So next time I want to make Q of P and don’t have any stale bread, I might use potatoes instead.

All of these were dishes I’d happily make again, so this is the best vintage feast so far. My adapted recipes for all three follow.
Recipe for Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton »

21 December, 2010

Vintage feasts: Josceline Dimbleby

rabbit liver pate

I hadn’t originally planned to include Josceline in my celebration of 1980s-and-older cookbooks. But then I was reminded of her by Maggie. It made me realise that apart from one of my favourite old standbys, her fusion of blanquette and goulash, I hadn’t cooked any of her recipes for absolutely ages. Maggie says “Thirty years ago, way before Nigella, we had a ‘posh’ cook in the guise of Josceline Dimbleby. She is a great, innovative cook and I can’t understand why she isn’t more widely known and more highly regarded”.

Me neither! I first encountered her via a book picked up in a second hand shop for 50p, entitled Taste of Dreams. It was a good introduction, highlighting her creative, unusual approach, with dishes that are often titivated to within an inch of their lives presentation-wise (the water-lily timbale is a shocker, a flat cake of carrots and avocado wrapped in spinach and surrounded by chicory leaves like petals ). Maybe we can blame the 1980s for that. But she often shows real flair in combinations of ingredients and, especially, textures; Middle-Eastern influences are omnipresent since she spent part of her youth there.

Later, I occasionally picked up the little 50p cookbooks with my shopping in Sainsbury’s, and the most tattered and food-stained one I have is Josceline’s A Traveller’s Tastes. Nearly every recipe in this book is a winner, but for this vintage feast I decided to give myself maximum flexibility by using The Josceline Dimbleby Collection, a Sainsbury’s omnibus of recipes from several of those little books. And it turns out that my choice of author is apposite after all, because after a long break, during which all of her books have gone out of print, she has very recently published a new book: Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories.

I think the dishes I chose for this meal are fairly representative, if short on the Middle-Eastern element. Josceline does tend towards “posh dinner party” food, but there are some family-friendly recipes too. Browsing through the book, I realised that I’d never actually made my own chicken liver pâté, so that seemed a good choice as a starter, especially her “mild” version with orange juice, cream, and chopped almonds in it. I was somewhat peeved, then, to discover that the supermarket was clean out of chicken livers, but recovered by buying a tub of rabbit livers instead. This could only improve it; rabbit liver is gorgeous. My confidence was well-placed; it was delicious served with thin, crispy toast, and so easy to make that I will definitely do it again as an easy dinner-party starter; see recipe below.

I continued the bunny theme with a “rabbit in the orchard” pie; classic flavours of rabbit, cider, mustard and cream, with apples, mushrooms, and tarragon added. The recipe has a Josceline signature to it: no onions. I think she must have an onion-hater in the family, because a lot of her recipes lack them where you would expect to see them. It’s ages since I made one of these very English meat-and-sauce filled pies. Despite my care in decorating the pastry, it looked terrible when it was dished up; the runny beige sauce looked really unappetising. It did taste good though, and we liked the way the juices had soaked into the bottom of the thick pastry lid; yum!

Josceline is very fond of fancy desserts. I chose one featuring one of her favourite ingredients, dried apricots. Here, they are poached and then covered with a “caramel cloud” of vanilla cheesecake and a brûlée topping. I had a bit of a problem with the topping; she suggests sprinkling sugar over the top of the cheesecake, caramelising it under the grill, and then putting it in the fridge for several hours. Surefire recipe for soggy caramel. It seemed to me that sprinkling sugar on the uneven top and trying to burn it wasn’t going to work that well anyway. So I ended up making caramel in a pan and pouring it over the cheesecake once it had been chilled. This worked, although it was a bit thick in places. But it was another dish that looked a total mess when served. Definitely a candidate for small individual dishes. But the taste wasn’t exceptional, so I wouldn’t make it again. I find you do have to be selective with Josceline Dimbleby recipes; sometimes she’s too creative for her own good, and they certainly aren’t foolproof the way Delia Smith ones are. But when she gets it right (as in the paprika-flavoured blanquette), they work really well.
Recipe for Vintage feasts: Josceline Dimbleby »

4 May, 2010

Vintage Feasts: Frugal Food

Frugal Food

My choice for April was Delia Smith’s Frugal Food. My paperback, now a tattered mess of food-stained pages, loosely contained in a cover adorned with a photo of a fresh-faced, decidedly unglamorous Delia, cost me 70p in 1974. She actually re-released this book with minor updates in 2008, not long after the publication of her much-reviled How to Cheat at Cooking (a more radical rewrite of her first published book). The new version, undoubtedly brought out to cash in on the recession, was a large-format hardback with full-colour glossy photos, the cover adorned with a cabbage instead of Delia’s face, costing £18. Not exactly a gift to poverty-stricken cooks.

I was a poverty-stricken cook in 1974, a student in London living in bedsits or crowded student flats. This book, along with Jocasta Innes’s excellent Pauper’s Cookbook, was rarely far from the stove, as its condition attests. I probably bought it because I regularly read and used the recipe column she wrote for the Evening Standard; I still have a looseleaf binder with many of Delia’s newspaper recipes pasted into it.

I don’t use the book now – the recipes are rather stodgy and earnest, a bit like Delia’s prose. Still, I thought it was worth getting out again. She had some sound ideas that stood me in good stead in those days – using cider in cooking instead of wine for example – and I still stick a skewer through baked potatoes so that they will cook more quickly. There are a few recipes here that became real favourites: fidget pie, made with scraps from a ham bone begged from the local butcher, rabbit in cider, steak and onions in Guinness, several recipes for offal, and, especially, chilladas – little rissoles made of lentils served with a tomato and chilli sauce (well, in my defence, it was the 70s!). Overall, the recipes aren’t much fun, but they are cheap, filling, and easy to cook.

pork braised in cider with prunes

For my vintage feast, I decided to cook something I couldn’t remember having tried before. As I’m in cider country at the moment, pork braised in cider with prunes seemed like a good choice. It did turn out well, if a bit dry – but I think that’s because I used a pork loin roast, since that was what I had. It would have been better with a fattier –and cheaper! – cut of meat. What little sauce there was tasted excellent, belying its humble origins. It’s a one-pot dish topped with sliced potatoes, but it needs some carrots or a green vegetable with it. To start, we had a simple carrot and leek soup, made with the stock from a pot-roasted chicken.

The choice of puddings was rather limited and uninspiring. I ended up picking spiced apple bread pudding, because I had some apples and some stale bread, but we were underwhelmed. It wasn’t a patch on my classic eggy, rum-flavoured, sultana-studded bread and butter pudding; the apples just made a soggy layer in what should have been a creamy mass of custard-soaked bread.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Delia, but having said that, there are a few of her recipes that I turn to again and again because they are so good, and she can be partly credited for teaching me (and probably millions of other people!) to cook. Her prissy, spell-out-every-detail style is a boon to unconfident cooks. Still, this book is evidently dated, in a way that her Summer Collection (the only one of hers I really like) isn’t – well, not yet anyway! It’s a reminder of how much better and more varied our food has become since then. It’s also a reminder that once upon a time most cookbooks just had recipes in them, not pages of arty photos, and were a lot cheaper!

food-stained Frugal Food
Recipe for Vintage Feasts: Frugal Food »

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