Sourdough crackers

Sourdough crackers
Anyone who is bitten by the sourdough bug will at some point find themselves wondering what to do with surplus starter. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find out about sourdough crackers. They are a brilliant way of using up a large surplus, easy to make, and delicious. Especially good served with cheese. You can vary the flavourings; whatever takes your fancy. Chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped nuts, herbs and spices, cheese …

Note, the starter doesn’t need to be active for this recipe. I accumulate my spare starter in a jar in the fridge over a period of a week or so. If you’ve kept it longer, do check its acidity and health before use. Also, I’m assuming your starter is equal weights of flour and water.
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Vintage Feast: Fine English Cookery by Michael Smith


Locked down and with not much to do except cook, I decided to revive my neglected “neglected cookbooks” series with Michael Smith’s Fine English Cookery, published in 1973. Mine’s a paperback reissue from 1998.

Long post, but comes with a recipe worth trying at the end, so scroll on if you just want that!

Michael Smith was a trained chef and restaurateur who was also a broadcaster. His book, while clearly treading the same ground as Jane Grigson’s great English Food, is a reflection of that. Jane herself wrote, “Of the many books on our food, his is my favourite, the one I use most.” Yet the two books have surprisingly few dishes in common, since Smith’s is biased towards restaurant food or at least dishes aimed more at dinner parties than family meals. He does draw on historical recipes, from the eighteenth century onwards but yes, this book reflects how the British middle classes ate and entertained in the 1970s!

The book has a simple structure: soups, “a medley of savoury and vegetable dishes”, principal dishes, puddings, sauces, salads. The soup chapter starts, to my surprise, with a chilled almond soup which immediately makes me think of the Spanish ajo blanco. No garlic or olive oil in this though; it’s simply chicken stock, flaked almonds, nut oil, and cream, thickened with flour. The puddings chapter is rather special too, with some delicious sounding baked puddings and tarts and, of course, a proper recipe for sherry trifle (no jelly).

In a spirit of adventure, I browsed the more unusual soups. Mushroom and mustard soup sounds interesting. But I was stopped in my tracks by chilled pineapple and curry soup. Curiosity got the better of me. It specified a fresh pineapple, but I was not about to waste one by cooking it in chicken stock and liquidising it, so I bought a tin. Other ingredients: curry powder, mango chutney, courgettes, onions, lemon juice. Served with cream swirled into it.

Verdict: it looked like snot. And the taste was pretty strange, flavours battling each other. It wasn’t disgusting, but I certainly won’t be making it again.

Main course: beef olives. I haven’t made these for decades. In the past I used an Italian recipe, with a stuffing featuring lemon zest, pine nuts, and sultanas, and a sumptuous slow-cooked tomato-based sauce. This version had a thoroughly English stuffing: yes, lemon zest featured, but with breadcrumbs, butter, and cooked ham. The sauce was a triumph though; rich with mushrooms, carrots, red wine and port. The only thing wrong with it was that there wasn’t enough of it. I’d halved the recipe but I think I should have made the full quantity of sauce. I have to say it deserves its reputation as a classic dinner party dish: yes, it’s a bit of a faff but it can be prepared entirely in advance, and it looks so much posher than a stew with the same ingredients would. I think the Italian version is superior though.

Pudding: I decided to try Maids of Honour, little tarts allegedly enjoyed by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Richmond. I believe the traditional version of these tarts has curd cheese in it. This one doesn’t; the filling is basically frangipane, similar to Bakewell tart, with a layer of quince jelly in the bottom. They were delicious, albeit too sweet; I’ll reduce the sugar next time. A flaky, crisp pastry case, filling that’s squidgy in the middle (possibly a bit underbaked) and crisp around the edges. Of the recipes I’ve tried from this book, this is the only one I’d make again. Good enough to serve to guests: recipe below.

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Pride of the Punjab

I got a Label Rouge free-range chicken on special offer, only 7 euros, and decided I fancied a change. Suddenly I remembered a recipe from an ancient Josceline Dimbleby book, one of those little ones they used to sell in Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, for, I think, 50p. A Traveller’s Tastes, it’s called, and it’s divided into sections of half a dozen recipes from different parts of the world. She has been pretty much forgotten now (try Googling her to see what I mean, the results are scanty). But most pages of this book are spattered with sauces and other ingredients — I used to use it a lot. See also … this blanquette still features on our menu regularly over thirty years after I bought the book. This is another of her recipes that deserves a wider audience.

This recipe is from the “India and Burma” section. Unusually for an Indian recipe, it features a whole chicken. It’s easy to do and the sauce is deliciously aromatic. I serve it with simply boiled Basmati rice; a green vegetable is a good idea too. Get started early because it needs to marinate for at least an hour.
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Pasta ai funghi

Pasta and mushrooms
I already have a go-to pasta and mushrooms recipe, but Felicity Cloake’s “perfect” version looked intriguingly different, so I gave it a try. I can recommend it — more fiddly to make, but it has an interestingly complex flavour. I adapted it a bit — she recommends whizzing the dried mushrooms to a powder and using it as a thickener, but that seemed like a recipe for grit in your sauce. Instead I soaked them and then chopped very small, and used the water (minus grit!) in the sauce. Also I used a herby white vermouth rather than the white wine or sherry she recommends and I think this really helped the flavour. I used dried tagliatelle, but I think this is a sauce that would go really well with fresh.
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Fresh fig tart with ginger custard

Fig tart

Still dealing with the glut of figs. I had a little pastry left over from my last tart, and I was passed a recipe from Delicious magazine for this variation, so I adapted it to what I had. Notably, instead of making one huge tart, I made two individual tartlets as that’s all I had pastry for. This used, erm, four figs. Here I’ve adjusted quantities to make a normal-sized (20 cm) single tart, but the individual ones are very pretty. The combination of frangipane and figs is good, and I loved the ginger custard. It would go with a lot of other dishes too. The recipe suggests serving it warm, but I did it French-style, room-temperature tart with chilled custard.

You can use the pastry recipe here. It makes enough for at least two tarts, so I always split it in two and put one half in the freezer, saving time next time I want to make a sweet tart.

Planning: there are several different elements, but you can make the pastry, frangipane, and even the custard a day ahead and store them in the fridge. Remove pastry at least half an hour before trying to roll it out.
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A glut of figs

A bowl of figs

The other day, the Guardian published an article on what to do with a glut of figs. It featured one lonely recipe, which required six figs. Luckily the Guardian community stepped in to provide many ideas for dealing with an actual glut.

I don’t personally have a glut, but I did notice the three fig trees groaning with fruit in a children’s playground I pass on the way to my daily swim. The ripe fruit was simply dropping to the ground, which seemed a terrible waste. So in the last few days I’ve picked over 2 kg, which is only a fraction of what’s there. Thanks to BBC Good Food and a commenter on the Guardian article, this post includes twice as many recipes as the Guardian article, and actually preserves the figs for future enjoyment. I’m very happy with the results of both: a delicious fig chutney, and spicy fig jam. Both very easy too. I adapted both of them according to taste and local circumstances.
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Mango millefeuille

Loosely based on a tapa served in a bar on the Costa Tropical, where mangoes are a popular crop. A ripe, freshly picked mango is a wonderful thing, best served simply. It works really well with soft cheese. The original was stacked millefeuille fashion with goat’s cheese and liberally sprinkled with coarsely grated Parmesan (not a good idea, it swamped the other ingredients). You can either stack or arrange on a plate as here, whatever takes your fancy. We actually like it with Philadelphia, in which guise it could almost be a dessert, but soft sheep’s cheese would work very well too. You can buy reduced balsamic vinegar in Lidl, otherwise it can be made by boiling down (cheap!) balsamic to reduce by 50%. We sometimes use miel de caña instead, which is a type of molasses, a byproduct of cane sugar production.

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Espinacas con Garbanzos: spinach and chickpeas

Spinach and chickpeas

This is a classic Seville tapa: every bar has a version of it. It might not sound exciting, but you will never regret trying it. It’s delicious and much healthier than the many deep-fried or meat-heavy tapas available. Suitable for vegans as well as vegetarians. We don’t often have it as a tapa at home — it makes a great light lunch or first course, with some flatbread. I use the recipe from my favourite Spanish cookbook, Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table, which I can’t recommend too highly.
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Quick thin-crust pizza

Pizza
Steve decided to make pizza for dinner yesterday. He googled a recipe as he usually does, and amazingly turned out two excellent pizzas less than an hour later. Almost as quick as a takeaway. We’ll definitely make this our default pizza recipe. It’s based on one from theKitchn, which I’ve converted from cup measures. There’s basically almost no rising time, apart from the time you spend preparing toppings. He did a selection: ham, mushrooms, and artichokes; prawns; and pear and gorgonzola, a favourite of ours (no tomato on this one). Baked on a pizza stone, but you can use a solid preheated baking tray turned upside-down.

Note: if you’re not in a hurry, you can let the dough rise till doubled, divide it in two, then put in sealed containers and refrigerate overnight. Give it 10-15 minutes to come to room temperature before shaping.
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Tarta de aguacate: avocado cheesecake

Tarta de aguacate
We had this “house special” dessert in a restaurant on Spain’s Costa Tropical, famed for its avocado orchards, and enjoyed it so much that I decided to try and reproduce it at home. First I googled in Spanish and found quite a few recipes that would clearly have similar results. I ended up using them to provide the basic idea for the ingredients, and determining quantities and method for myself. I had thought it would need gelatine, and believed there was some in the restaurant version, but decided to try first without. And funnily enough it worked just fine, and set well after a few hours in the fridge. Just as well, as I next served it to vegetarians. It has a lovely fresh lime flavour and a pretty pale green colour, so it’s well suited to entertaining guests. You could serve it with a scoop of sorbet or ice cream on the side, but it’s fine without. One recipe showed it garnished with strawberries, which could be nice too.

It’s a really good way of using avocados that are so ripe as not to be suitable for salad; they need to be soft enough to be easily mashed. Very quick to make, no cooking required, but it does need time to chill. Also note that it won’t go brown as avocados do when exposed to the air, because of the lime juice.
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