My Life in 10 Dishes

So I have seen this on several blogs around the interweb and I decided to give it a go because I haven’t been able to bake this weekend without an oven so I have nothing new to post and because I’m in a contemplative mood and fancied a bimble through memories of great food.

I think food is so important to shaping who we are and what we become as adults. I know that my love of cooking comes from having been surrounded by great food all of my life. I look at other peoples’ blogs in awe because they seem to create the most complex and dramatic dishes and I worry that people click off from here when they see that I don’t cook like that. I can but I often choose not to. I’d much rather take pride in basic but great recipes so when I’m back in my own kitchen and cooking for my own whim, I shall do some more exciting recipes but if you can’t cook the basics, there’s no point bothering to cook anything else.

I think that’s a desperate plea for you all to like my blog and if you do, please leave me a comment. We’re all after a bit of appreciation and nothing says that better than a comment. Similarly, should you wish to comment constructively in a critical way, please do, that’s how we learn. Unless you’re my father and you’re highlighting my incorrect translation of Welsh swearwords – apologies again to anyone who was offended. If you would like to suggest recipes, ingredients, places to visit or just something a bit different as a post, please do. I live for feedback because that’s what why we all do this blogging thing. As much as I get pleasure from noting down my recipes and taking the most awful photographs of my food, I also like to think that I do it for you whether you’re a Michelin starred chef or you can’t boil an egg.

Which brings me to photographs… My best friend, Jackie, and I decided today that this photographing things with my trusty Blackcurrant can not go on any longer. For one thing, the shutter noise is ridiculously intrusive and can silence a whole restaurant and for another, I can’t photograph anything after dark, usually I fail to get it out of its cover until too late and the pictures are always blurred! So I’m going to move into taking photos with a real camera although as I recall my photos of Australia were abysmal too and that was a real camera. In fact, I have always specialised in the kind of photographs that include the camera strap or my thumb. Back in the days of real film, I used to regularly put used films back in my camera and end up with wonderfully eery double-exposed shots! Great for ghostliness, not so great as a record of real life! So please bear with me while I learn to get things into a picture, I’m sure it’ll be a long while before I’m artfully arranging lemons on antique boards like some people out there on the internet (which isn’t to say I don’t like them, I think they’re brilliant!)

So this has turned into a kind of mission statement which I suppose is appropriate and from this I give you my life in 10 dishes.

fish pie

I adore fish pie. In fact, I think I’d probably choose it as my last meal. There’s something about the mashed potato crust with browned fork lines in it and large chunks of fish in a nursery-ish creamy sauce. I make mine with double cream because I think it soaks into the mashed potato and makes it even more wonderful. When I do next make it and post it, I shall post the link to here for reference.

Fish pie is one of the first fishy things I ate other than smoked salmon because I hate to admit but I refused to eat fish until well into my teens. One Easter weekend, when we were still at school, we managed to eat 3 fish pies in 48 hours and while Jackie swore off it for life, it opened the floodgates of obsession.

My godmother makes a smoked fish pie which is delicious but I’m fairly fussy that I would like salmon, smoked haddock and small prawns. Nothing too special like a King Prawn. I find them too meaty for a fish pie. I like it served with nothing but peas.

A small story to indicate just how brilliant my fish pie is. When our friend, Josephine, also known as the homeless lesbian, came to live with me for a short while when she split up with her girlfriend, I took to feeding her because she was a bit sad and I wasn’t sure how to help. We were both working at the pub at the time and so when I knew she was working later and I finished earlier in the day, I would go home and cook something exciting for supper. One night, I decided to cook fish pie and it was one of those days when you take real care over making something, unlike those days when bored of having made something before so often you throw it together. Anyway, Josephine came home, demolished the pie and we left the remainder on the kitchen side to wash up. (Well for Jo to wash up, I don’t wash up very often. If you eat my food, you can do the washing up, that’s just how I roll! How I long for a dishwasher!) I digress, I came into the kitchen the next afternoon, bearing in mind that this was a hot July and although the work top is marble, it was certainly warm, and I found Jo with a fork eating the leftover, left-out fish pie from the pot. I screeched at her about food hygiene and food poisoning and her imminent death from eating day old, warm fish and she said she couldn’t help it, she loved it so much. Creepily, this is one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard about my cooking. Although, it makes me feel quite unwell!

I don’t have a picture of fish pie so please have one of Jo and our friend Phil stood in my kitchen on the day I left Liverpool, last time round:

blackcurrant jam sandwiches

One of the earliest photos of me taken was of me eating a blackcurrant jam sandwich. Some glutton for punishment would feed these to me in my highchair and I’m not certain who it fell to to hose me down with a pressure washer afterwards! But even though I was under 2 ft tall, I think I’d already honed an appetite for food. I wasn’t a child who was impressed by jars of baby food, I wanted what the adults were having and so I ate roast beef whizzed in the food processor, prawn sandwiches which I called ‘crawns’ and sprouts which I demanded as ‘SPRARTS’ and shouted for from my highchair! Without any of these, I would never have become the food connoiseur I am today!!

I give you the blackcurrant jam sandwich and the child so happy for devouring it:

I appear to be saving several sandwiches in those cheeks for later!

I seem quite chuffed with the sandwich situation!

sausages are interesting for supper

When Mum was out or away, Dad would bring out the kind of cooking that is best reserved for scouts or war time rations. This certainly isn’t a criticism of Dad’s cooking but his repertoire wasn’t vast, consisting mostly of corned beef hash (I have a genuine phobia of corned beef) and beans on toast. And it was all delicious and I have happy memories of wolfing it down and watching Top of the Pops or my favourite, The Brittas Empire.

But then there was a great culinary turn in our household, the winds of change blew and Dad’s supper options leapt up with a new addition. Oh yes, the brilliantly titled ‘Sausages are Interesting for Supper’. I remember he’d got the title from a friend but the end result was entirely Dad’s design! There wasn’t a rigid recipe for this, in fact the only real requirement was sausages and even then they might be garlic, smoked, regular, cumberland, chorizo or sobresada… There always appeared to be a bean or a potato to bind it and I wonder if it contained herbs or tomatoes. These things don’t withstand the memories, alas! Later, when I was at university, I would cook a variation of this for my housemates and I suppose it’s really a kind of cassoulet.

Anyway, if I think back to the times before I went to boarding school and when I was at home with Dad, I’m magically transported back to Sausages are Interesting for Supper and the infectious enthusiasm of Dad’s cooking.

roast beef

If I had to choose a final meal, I think it would be roast beef. I think it would also contain lobster and duck and mussels and creme brulee and fish pie and my mum’s meringues and lots of champagne but the king of kings, champion of champions is roast beef.

I have a list of requirements and these things are vitally important. The roast beef needs to be cooked by my mum, she’s just a whizz at it, it needs to have lots of salt and pepper all over it in the roasting tin. If possible, it should be a rib, bone in, well hung and from a great butcher. It should be cooked for such a minimal time, you would wonder if it had a chance to cook. I’ll always remember someone telling me as a child that they liked beef that rare that ‘a good vet would have it back on its feet in an hour’, this still applies for me! I like to have salt on my cooked roast beef, I’m not bothered about pepper. I like one yorkshire pudding, like a giant savoury puffball. I don’t wish to be inundated with vegetables but I like green cabbage, a runner bean and most importantly a roasted parsnip. I can take or leave gravy and I will really only ever eat my own roast potatoes. I like a smear of devilishly hot English mustard and perhaps, if I can’t have mustard, I’ll make do with horseradish and I also want to pick bits of the joint when lunch is finished and when I’m up in the kitchen clearing up.

Now this may seem seriously fussy. In fact, not seem, this is seriously fussy. But that’s how I like it and it’s important, if you’re going to have something as a last meal and it’s not perfectly executed (no pun intended) than you might as well make do with a Big Mac.

chinese leaves with garlic sauce

My long suffering, and often mentioned, best friend, Jackie is from Hong Kong, although she has been over here such a very long time. In the years of our friendship, we have eaten many chinese meals together but the one food that I wouldn’t hesitate to order and is a must whatever the occasion is some form of chinese leaf in garlic sauce. I don’t mind pak choi, bok choi or cabbage. I don’t choi sum or those white frondy cabbage leaves but I love nothing better than those crunchy, refreshing leaves with the spiky freshness of garlic sauce.

When Jackie came to stay last year, she made this for me and deliberated over the amount of cornflour/garlic she used but it was perfect, it was heavenly. It’s up there with the mounds of crispy belly pork as vital food and it reminds me of the hours spent in our favourite chinese in oxford, the o.c or Oriental Condor for those not in the know.

The o.c is our haunt. We used to go there with school (we used to call it the Oriental Condom, we were wild) and then they closed it down for a year. Fortunately, this was after our gap year so we ate in here at least once a week at the time. It’s a simple restaurant opposite the train station in Oxford and the tables are formica and the service brisk but friendly. Over the years, we’ve tried many things on the menu but some things I won’t be moved on such as Stewed Eel with Pickled Eggs. I don’t think there’s a need, really.

Anyway, we’ve been there with each other, with family, with friends, with boyfriends, with visitors, with important people and with old chums and it has been the stage for most of our friendship and now, Jackie’s going off to marry a remarkably patient man and yet we’ll always have the o.c.

mum’s meringues

Mum makes the best meringues. That’s it really. I know people can’t agree on whether a meringue should be crispy or chewy but Mum’s are the crispiest, flakiest meringues with great shards of sweet crunch. They are nearly always sandwiched together with thick cream or marscapone and as a child, growing up in Suffolk, my friends would clamour for them. Friends of the family, even though now grown up, still do.

The secret, or so she claims, is to whisk the eggs to seriously firm peaks and also adding the sugar gradually one teaspoon at the time. Of course, you have to have the cleanest bowl and the freshest eggs. Mum also cooks hers overnight in a seriously cool oven and I think this gives them the crispness that other meringues lack. They’re always pearly white and piped into the most beautiful points. I love these meringues!

gooseberry fool

I wasn’t born, I was found beneath a gooseberry bush. Or so the stories go. I love gooseberries. I don’t enjoy being attacked by their thorny barbs whilst picking them from the garden, at home, but it’s all worth it in the long run when they’re bubbling on the stove. I can think of no nicer use for gooseberries than a fool:

Gooseberry Fool:

  • 350g gooseberries
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 75g caster sugar (or to taste)
  • 284ml carton double cream
  • 200g cold, ready-made, fresh custard
  1. Put the gooseberries in a saucepan with the water and place over a medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes or until the gooseberries are very soft, squashing them with a spoon as they cook. Purée in a blender then press through a sieve to remove the pips. Stir the sugar into the sieved purée, adding more if the fruit is very tart, then leave to cool completely.
  2. Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks, then fold it loosely into the custard. Loosely fold in the gooseberry purée so the fool has a marbled texture. Serve chilled, in small glasses.

apple pie

One of the first things I can remember cooking with Mum is apple pie. I do have a memory of walking across a vegetable patch and a 100 profiteroles blowing off a tray and all over the garden which is earlier and I remember eating vast quantities of butter biscuits in a tin with a swan on the front at Christmas. However, the first real cooking together and wanting to imitate her that I can remember is baking fruit pies.

There’s something so magical about the way the pastry floats over the filling leaving smooth lumps and bumps beneath. My favourite part then, and still now, was when she would hold the pie in one hand and using a blunt knife, sweep around the edges of the pie dish to cut the crust to size.

I baked a raspberry and apple pie here and I wouldn’t really change the recipe in the slightest.

sourdough bread

I love bread and my ambition for this year is to own a bread maker. I love the idea of being able to bake bread as and when I need it and I know I’ll never get around to it otherwise. I’ve baked bread in the past. We did so at the Grange, where I went to learn to cook and met my dear friend, Hatty. I’ve also made a couple of batches in Liverpool but only super easy stuff but the next recipe I want to try is sourdough bread, I’m a little scared by the prepping of the sour yeasty mixture but I’m so keen to make my own.

shellfish

I’ve mentioned before that I hated fish until well into my teens and shellfish was almost the last frontier as far as fish was concerned. It really has been in the last 10 years that I’ve faced up to the fear and now I have an obsession with mussels, scallops and lobster that I didn’t know was possible! I do still have one nemesis and that’s whitebait. As my nearest and dearest will attest to, I can’t stand their eyes watching me.

Shellfish also takes me back to a part of the country I love and probably where I left my heart, truth be told. I love visiting Cornwall and Devon. I love the countryside, the sea and I don’t mind the cream teas either but I love most at the end of a long day, sliding into a table at a pub on a harbour and digging into a huge bowl of moules mariniere with a gin and tonic.

So there are many things that you’ll be wondering why I’ve left off and many meals I’ve eaten in restaurants that could factor but these are just 10 of the dishes that have made up the sum parts of who I am and how I cook.. Here’s to many more!

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One thought on “My Life in 10 Dishes

  1. the Boy with the Plastic Spatula says:

    My oh my, you have been busy since my last visit, I’m going to have to set aside a full day to read everything i’ve missed, and to steal anything that i can pretend is my idea.
    I’m loving the top 10 list, its randomness is what makes it so perfectly you.
    I too would have your fish pie as my last meal, along with roast beef, mussels, duck, lobster, creme brulee, meringues, and lots of champagne. And why would you even try to eat anyone else’s roast potatoes when yours are so sublime?!! When i am rich i will hire you as my personal chef so that i never have to cook again. Much love. xxx

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