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Mostly Concerning Food

We’ve had a couple of weeks of lazing about and doing things at our own pace. One of the real perks of a teacher’s job are the holidays. Let’s face it, they’re a big reason why I joined the profession in the first place. So I don’t see any reason why retirement from the classroom should stop me enjoying the fourteen weeks of getting up late, reading the papers, walking the dog and digging the garden that gave my academic year some balance. As the current Mrs Johnson celebrates another holiday I leave my plough shares where they stand in my non pedagogic furrows and I join her.

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It’s been an unusually early Easter. For those unaware of the discussions at the Whitby Synod of 664 AD, the date of Easter is fixed at the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Our current archbishop of Canterbury, a man with a small head that is full of vague fancies, thinks we should have a fixed date and this would suit Thomas Cook and Sons. For myself I like the movable feast. The one disadvantage is that an early Easter is often a cold one in these northern latitudes. This one has been particularly chilly.

Porridge has been the favourite breakfast but there are only so many dishes of hot oatmeal that you can photograph. No matter how warming the fare, a bowl of porridge looks like a bowl of porridge. No wonder the marketing people settled for a jolly eighteenth century fellow of Swarthmoor or a Highland hammer thrower. An occasional grapefruit has added zest to breakfast time and warded off scurvy for the 57th year in a row. Preparing a grapefruit is an absorbing and satisfying task. If done well it takes a little time but this is proper cheffing. The result are segments of morning freshness that slide easily onto the spoon. If done lazily, then the eating can be a tedious affair.DSC_0002

I’ve continued with the sourdough. Every now and then the starter beckons to me and I make up a loaf or two or a couple of pizzas. Still a way to go before I feel I’ve got it just the way I want it but everything so far has been very eatable and reasonable looking. Bread, cold meats, cheese, tomatoes and a cup of decent coffee. It’s what holidays were meant for.DSC_0003

Soup is another perfect accompaniment to good bread. This is a simple tin of chicken and pasta soup from Lidl. Unlike Heinz and Campbells it does actually look and smell like chicken soup made at home. It isn’t anything special but makes a tasty lunch with the sourdough loaf.DSC_0004

My new favourite. And this is from a supposed budget supermarket. The yoghurt is wonderful and the jarred plums are as sweet and tasty as if I’d picked and stewed them myself. The difference is that I couldn’t have done it for the price. It’s part of a steady transition from winter eating to summer. Always nice to follow the seasons.

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Kippers are an all year round treat. Preserved fish used to be a huge part of the British diet. Entire populations used to follow the herring shoals around the coast. Not just the fishing boats and fishermen, but coopers, rope makers, smokers and entire armies of girls and women who gutted and cured the fish. I’m reasonably adept at preparing round fish (as opposed to flat fish) for the pan. It takes me under a minute to head, gut and de-fin a herring. In the same time a fish girl would have done half a dozen. These days the herring fleet has practically disappeared from our shores and there are only a handful of real smokehouses left. They’re worth looking for. The kippers, smokies and cured fish from them are a world away from the dyed product I have on my plate above. It was fine, a decent breakfast, but left me ultimately dis-satisfied and longing for the real thing.

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My first attempt at a sourdough pizza. Passata, Wensleydale and anchovies. The sourdough makes a difference. A good contrast between the crispness of the base near the edges and the doughiness nearer the centre. Very tasty.

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Sourdough loaf and rolls. There are a lot of skills involved in making sourdough bread that don’t concern the yeast baker. I’m delighted with taste and texture but intend to put some time in on presentation. You need an extremely sharp blade to score the loaves before baking. I’m talking razor blade sharp and I’m reluctant (with my record of clumsiness) to have such a blade hanging around the kitchen.

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My casual (point and press) method of photography doesn’t do justice to this steak sandwich. Here I’ve captured the benefits of three things if going for a delicious and easy to eat treat of a sandwich. First to ensure the Maillard reaction to create that crispy, almost flame grilled texture on the outer. It’s done by high heat in the pan and leaving the steak long enough to cook the outer layers thoroughly and change their chemical composition. Second is to do what the French have always done better than the English, which is to leave it rare and third to let it rest for long enough for the juices to re-distribute throughout the meat. In England we used to talk about sealing in the juices. We were just plain wrong in this. Browning the outside does increase flavour, and range of flavours but it doesn’t seal anything in. Quite the opposite in fact. Conducted and radiant heat drive the juices out and evaporate them in equal measure. Far more juices are preserved in the centre of the steak and these will spread through the meat when resting giving the steak a tenderness to the teeth as well as pleasure to the tastebuds. (For further details see Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This Chapter 48. It’s a book that gets almost as much use in my kitchen as the Goodhousekeeping Cookery Book I bought in the 1970s.)

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A quick beef stir-fry. Onions, slivers of carrot, savoy cabbage, bean sprouts and even some sweetcorn kernels served up with noodles and coated with a sweet and sour sauce. Chunks of left over roast beef added towards the end of cooking. Served with rice crackers and decent soy sauce. Very easy, very tasty.

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Another spring time breakfast, another generous bowl of yoghurt with bottled plums and slices of orange and banana. It feels healthy as I eat it and it tastes wonderful.

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Some macaroni cheese served up with sausages and a baked potato. Perfect reward for a day spent cutting down a twenty five year old Leylandii hedge that had grown out of control.

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Easter means roast leg of lamb in many English homes. We have taken to enjoying vegetarian food for the big feast days, so the roast lamb was moved to a few days after. Generously studded with fresh rosemary from the garden and accompanied in the oven by songs on the ukulele. The Marmite jar has nothing to do with the meal. Must have been left over from breakfast time.

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Roast lamb with mint sauce (also fresh from the garden), new potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower with a cheese sauce…and gravy. A lot going on on this plate and I’m sure purists may say that there are too many conflicting flavours. All I can say is that it didn’t feel that way when I was eating it.

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When David is home we try to have a different breakfast every day. The traditional breakfast is always among the most popular. Here mushrooms and asparagus balance out the fat and salt of the bacon. The eggs are lightly fried. These are from Frances and Steven’s chickens and are far too nice to over cook.

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A big joint of beef goes a long way. Some roast, some sandwiches, some stir fried and some made into a beef curry. Recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey. Pickle, chutney and raita are all shop bought. As are the poppadums. We have a couple of good restaurants where we have our Indian food cooked by people who know what they are doing but I do enjoy making a good curry every now and then. The house smells great for days as well.

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My third batch of sourdough. As you can see I’ve invested in a rising basket. Like the sharp blade, it makes a big difference.

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Another stir-fry. This one used a couple of rashers of bacon as the main feature, a bag of pre-prepared vegetables from the supermarket and some quickly boiled noodles. About 15 minutes from packaging to plate. I always make too much and always eat it anyway. I’m working hard on the house and in the garden. Calories get burnt up.

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We went a little daft over Christmas puddings after we bought a microwave oven in November. It is such an instant and tasty treat. Five minutes from packaging to dish and the cream comes straight from the fridge. It’s almost easier than opening a bag of crisps and a hundred times nicer. I used to make Christmas puddings but do so very rarely these days. A heck of a lot of work. They are much better than the bought ones but the bought ones are quite good enough.

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Thanks to investment in a range of rising baskets I have made my first ever baguette. It’s a sourdough loaf and was absolutely the best baguette I have ever had.

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The results of the sourdough baking so far have been fabulous. And I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. Thank you once again to Foodbod, Master of Something Yet and e-Tinkerbell (fantastic bloggers all) for inspiration and ideas.

Bon appétit.

Simon