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February 2003

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Fire From Heaven, Mary Renault
Smoked salmon
Oh Jesus I have promised... to the tune from The Muppet Show
Shrove Tuesday

Friday 28th February

Hmmm... what I need in my life is a squidgy, sinful, bible-black chocolate cake. I made a hazelnut/cinnamon cake this week, - Nigella calls her Nutella cake torta alla guianduja but however much I flutter my eyelashes I don't think I can carry it off for this one - and it's all very well, but frankly it isn't worth the calories. Back to the baking board.

Thursday 27th February

As I came back from work last week with a jar of homemade marmalade in my handbag (stranger things have been known, I promise) - and as, very nice marmalade though it is, we are not really marmalade-breakfasting by nature - I made citrus 'spiked' chicken. This is basically chicken portions roasted in a glaze of marmalade mixed with a little orange and lemon juice, a finely chopped chilli and a little thyme. The sharp/sweetness of seville oranges may not be what I want for breakfast, but it's very good with meat.

Wednesday 26th February

Rustic food in a hurry: cannellini beans with mushrooms - I think this was in the Guardian a few days ago. Yes, here it is. Aren't I nice to you? Now I see that all the things I was going to point out that I would do differently next time are where I deviated from the recipe. That'll teach me. Mind you, I had parsley in the beans, which was a good deviation, and half an onion with the mushrooms, ditto; and mixed mushrooms instead of field could be considered an allowable variation. I had a whole lemon for half as much bean puree, which was possibly too much, and cream would certainly have been an improvement. And I can hardly believe I didn't put any garlic in.

Monday 24th February

What's the fastest cake in the world? Scone. It's true what they say, the Cambridge Footlights have nurtured so many great comedians. I am also fond of this joke because of course it only works if you are on the right side of the pronunciation debate. I think there is a curse on my attempt to make food for work. Remember my failure to make brownies? I've made some scones for our party tonight (our very cosmopolitan students have been asked to bring traditional food from their home countries). They're ok, I suppose. No-one is going to be converted to the beauties of English cuisine. Sadly I have to accept that this time it is not my technique, ingredients or equipment which is to blame, but my arithmetic.

Friday 19th February

Time for a little experiment. Doing things for the first time always takes longer, even if they're not difficult, so yesterday I devoted the evening to stuffed onions, since I happen to believe that life is plenty long enough to stuff any vegetable that crosses my path - admittedly I have never been married to a restaurant mogul. Anyway, that being the happy case, I am able to potter about for an evening scooping the middles out of onions with a teaspoon and filling them up again with said middles (chopped and fried), sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, breadcrumbs and feta. Quite delicious. It does take a long time because you have to roast the onion shells before stuffing them, so that they will be soft and sweet rather than crunchy and halitositic. But still - call me superwoman - it isn't hard work.

Thursday 18th February

I found a recipe for harira, the lamb soup which is traditionally eaten in some countries by Muslims at the end of each day of fasting during Ramadan. Hopefully I'm not committing a dreadful heresy by cooking it at the wrong time of year... it is cooked for a long time so the little pieces of lamb and the chickpeas are very tender, very warm, spicy and complex, with a good spoonful of beautiful rose petal harissa stirred in for heat. Good food on a cold night for very hungry people.

Monday 17th February

Hope you don't mind me dwelling on V-day just for one more day... I did cook, after all, and one day you might just want a nudge towards Thai mussels en papillotte. The Good Food magazine is often a bit naff (Fifty Quick Suppers Your Kids Will Eat!) but they did manage to get this recipe from Jean-Christophe Novelli ('sexiest chef in England' - hmmm, may not be saying much). Speaking as a mussel-cooking novice, these were a revelation. You do have to scrub and de-beard them, of course, but that doesn't take too long (besides, it is deeply satisfying to know that you are Making An Effort). I had so drummed it into myself to throw out the ones that didn't close in the cold water or open in the hot that I was quite expecting to lose half the batch - but they were all healthy and died obediently when told to. The sauce was made by softening shallots, lemon grass, ginger, fennel, star anise and coriander stalks, then adding the mussels, a handful of tiger prawns and a splash of white wine. Cover and steam for a few minutes (until the mussels open). Then a bit of a palaver, take the mussels and prawns out with a slotted spoon, add a little coconut milk and reduce by half. Stir the sauce back into the seafood and divide into two squares of greaseproof paper, tie them into money-bag parcels and bake briefly. Spare sauce was eaten with a spoon in my house, but perhaps we lack imagination.

Friday 14th February

I've been making florentines for no particular reason... They were surprisingly easy. But then I was making a very small batch. Of course that did mean that I was basically guessing how much sugar and butter I needed. Once they were melted it was easy to guess the quantities of chopped almonds, hazlenuts, pistachios, raisins and cherries - chop a handful, stir them in until it's solid-looking, eat the leftovers. One thing I learnt was that florentines spread a lot during cooking... this is why sensible people make round ones. But immediately after cooking, your big round puddle of sweet, jewelled, sticky stuff is pretty malleable, so you can shape it (eg with a biscuit cutter - scrape off what is left round the edges and pop it back inside). Of course this would not be at all practical with a proper-sized batch! Once they are set you spread one side with chocolate. Not so difficult after all.

Thursday 13th February

Indian food and trashy television. Bliss. Though somehow my food came out more lurid, if possible, than the frocks... There was chicken and sweet potato curry, slow cooked in stock, with a little tomato, but mostly cinnamon, cumin, mustard seeds, cardamom, chilli, garlic, ginger, etc, and really extremely orange. And then there was lemon-ginger dhal - made with red lentils and thus also quite orange. But delicious. Nothing was really hot - the curry was very mellow and the dhal quite sharp. So next time I just need to wear sunglasses...

Monday 10th February

Extremely acceptable fennel and mushroom soup - this passed a pleasant kitchen-fogging hour on a Sunday afternoon, sat happily while I popped out to evensnog, and was warm, tasty and creamy by the time we'd walked back in the drizzle. Sweat one onion; two bulbs of fennel; two cloves of garlic; one potato - that bit for a while, until everything is shiny and soft - two rashers of bacon and a punnet of chestnut mushrooms. As the bacon opaquifies and the mushrooms shrink, you can add a small spoonful of fennel seeds and a larger one of herbs; and some finely chopped reconstituted mushrooms if you have a packet of dried porcini or chanterelles in the back of the cupboard. I took so long doing all this that by the time I put the stock in (one litre of homemade chicken stock) everything but the potato was more or less cooked. So it only needed another fifteen minutes or so simmering to be ready to whizz. I don't think there's any remedy to the off-putting subfusc colour of mushroom soup - but once garnished with a large dollop of crème fraîche, black pepper and the fronds from the fennel, it looked a lot more appetising.

Friday 7th February

Only a little late for Chinese New Year, mushrooms with chilli and oyster sauce. I only had ordinary mushrooms, but this is very nice with a mixture including oyster, chestnut and shiitake. The mushrooms are roughly chopped, and marinated in two parts soy sauce, two parts rice wine, one part sesame oil, a pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar, and a teaspoon of cornflour (I said a teaspoon! That's enough!). They don't need to sit for very long - it's not as though they need to be tenderised (aside: my meat mallet came in very handy when assembling flat-pack a bookcase last weekend... though strangely my mother seemed exasperated by the household tools considered essential by 'a cook and a theoretical physicist'. But then this is the woman who goes nowhere without a tape measure, a folding set of cutlery and a teensy-weensy glasses-fixing screwdriver.) Where was I? Ok, leave the mushrooms for as long as it takes to chop a couple of spring onions, a clove of garlic, a chilli, and some fresh ginger, and to start them frying (in that order). When they're soft - a minute or so - add the mushrooms, plus a dollop of oyster sauce and a little hoisin sauce. They only need to fry for a couple more minutes. You can add the leftover marinade if things seem too sticky. Last night I made rice to go with this (with a sachet of miso, mmmm), so of course that needs to be started before anything else; but actually this is nicest as a starter, scooped up from a communal dish into crisp little lettuce-leaf cups.

Wednesday 5th February

I can never resist poussins when they're on special offer: ickle baby chickens, potentially a whole one each - though we never eat that much, so there's always the added benefit of leftovers. Lots of garlic, lemon, butter, and somehow being small they're easier to cook, though I did put foil over them towards the end (maybe for the last ten of the forty-five minutes) to stop them getting too brown. It wasn't at all what I'd been planning, but it was so good... I did lentils, with bacon, fennel and rosemary, and they were damn good too.

Tuesday 4th February

Sometimes a meal can be just exactly what you planned - planned obsessively, in response to a specific craving - can be perfect in its execution, and delicious and warming and gooey and fattening: and still not be right. Sometimes when your brain tells you that gnocchi with blue cheese sauce would make your life complete, it's wrong. Not that there was anything wrong with the gnocchi. The sauce was smooth, creamy and just gorganzola'd enough. But I'd been so obsessed with stodge that I hadn't bought any salad, or crusty bread; I hadn't thought hard enough about the sauce, and whether an onion, some bacon, chilli, or thyme would have given it more depth - even just infusing the milk for the béchamel with an onion, a bay leaf and some peppercorns. Also, I need a shallower gratin dish, to maximise that nice brown parmesan crusty part. Lesson learnt.