Mostly Concerning Food
I’m seasonal in my tastes. It isn’t just that I associate stews and oatmeal with cold weather, I actually find myself yearning for them. As a concerned and, I would like to think, caring member of the race, I increase the proportion of vegetarian dishes every year. On top of that, as a meat eater I believe in the maxim that all of the animal should be used. Lions and tigers and other carnivorous hunters prize the organs on the prey above all else. Animals like the cheetah, who are likely to be driven away from the kill by stronger predators, are quick to feed on liver, kidney and heart. There is a school of thought that says if we think ourselves entitled to eat meat than we must be prepared to consume the whole beast. In China they say that the only part of a duck not eaten is the quack. In Britain it was a philosophy championed by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in the 80s. He’s made a good living out of it but I think he is reasonably sincere.
It’s ironic that offal, traditionally a meat that the poor could afford, is now on the menus of expensive restaurants and rarely in corner cafes. So much of what was once the daily lot of the rural poor is now gracing the eating houses of the rich. This post’s offerings include quite a few of these. Porridge, risotto, dumplings, tortillas, pasta, liver, potatoes were all everyday staples for my ancestors (no-one in my family made the big house in any thing other than a serving capacity until the second half of the twentieth century). Today they are served up more often by parents with university degrees and pension plans (guilty of both) than by those on tax credits. There is a move towards trying to turn the clocks back on this but unfortunately it is being done in such a patronising way by affluent chefs that it is likely to fail.
My love of peasant food is in celebration of two things; a warm sense of family continuity, of communion with my forebears, and the fact that the food is superb. You can make a delicious, filling and warming pan of risotto in half an hour using an onion, a stock cube, some arborio rice and a pint or so of hot water. By adding a pepper and/or some celery or an off cut of chorizo you have a meal fit for a special occasion. Especially if served with a generous grating of parmesan cheese.
Cheese itself was found (and often made) in the poorest homes. In his superb history of Italian food ‘Delizia‘, John Dickie observed that the poor farmers were selling their delicious home made cheeses and home grown pears to the rich so they could afford a scrap or two of meat from the rich man’s larder. If only they had realised that cheese and pears was one of the greatest of all food combinations then the entire history of Europe might have been different.
Here is my take on winter foods that might have graced an English smallholding, a Scottish croft or our kinfolk from further afield. I didn’t set out to do this. It was only when I downloaded the photographs that I recognised a pattern. I’ve always been seasonal in foods. This is what we eat in the winter.
This risotto is made from arborio rice. The colour is from chunks of chorizo giving off its oil and spices. There’s a good gating of parmesan stirred into this one at the end of the cooking and another generous grating about to be added. A growing debate in our house is to whether or not it is better fresh from the pan or re-heated the following day. It’s different both ways but I couldn’t say which I prefer other than the one I am currently eating. According to Dickie many of our favourite Italian dishes were essentially vegetarian for the simple reason that the people eating them couldn’t afford meat. A little meat was seen as a treat to pep the dinners into something very special. The same thing works today. You don’t need very much in any Italian dish.
Wraps, tortillas and other flatbreads are now so popular in England that it is difficult to remember that they are a recent addition. You simply couldn’t get them in the sixties. In the seventies and eighties you needed a specialist food store. By the nineties supermarkets stocked them in most stores. Today there are racks and racks of them. Another new item are the bags of ready prepared salad. This is a tuna wrap. The tortilla takes a minute in a dry frying pan. A handful of leaves, a forkful of tinned tuna, a few slices of tomato and spring onion and a squirt of mayonnaise. Roll cut and serve. Tuna never was the food of poor farmers but was a staple during my younger days in bedsits and draughty, shared houses.
A rib-eye steak, flash griddled and sliced into strips, piled on top of salad leaves. Tomatoes and English mustard were added before the upper crust. This was my treat. There was no reason for the treat other than I fancied it. If my ancestors could have afforded to give themselves a good steak dinner I’m sure they would have. I’m certain they wouldn’t be-grudge me.
The sausages are from an independent farmer. The bread is a multi grain loaf from Lidl. Lidl is about the best of our supermarkets for quality and range of bread. This sausage sandwich looks good, tasted good and by golly I’m sure it did me good.
Slices of fresh baguette and Orkney crab paté with some grapes and some walnuts. All supplied by Lidl. It is a budget supermarket but it turns up trumps for tasty treats. This terrine might not be as good as you’d make for yourself but you’d need pretty advanced taste buds to tell the difference.
My favourite Sunday tea. Soft boiled eggs, good bread, real butter and mugs of tea. All that is needed now is a traditional Sunday cake.
Coffee and walnut cake. Walnuts are plentiful and cheap these days. It would be a pity not to take advantage.
Another Lidle treat. These are little ramekins filled with scallops and prawns in a white sauce. I wouldn’t serve them to guests but for a mid-morning snack when working in the office they are perfect.
Most of the sauce is hidden in this photograph. It’s made of onions, peppers, celery and mushrooms all sweated down. Add a big dollop of creme fraiche, season and serve with spaghetti and parmesan. Impossible not to have a second helping.
Ah liver. Lots of iron in it they say. In fact it is highly rated by nutritionists. This is my preferred method of cooking. Simply flash fry it in a hot pan and serve on toast with mushrooms and sprinkle with Henderson’s Relish and Tabasco.
The tortilla is made by mashing some left over new potatoes with a fork together with some cooked green cabbage. Beat in an egg and fry lightly for five minutes each side. The mixed grill is completed with flash fried liver, rashers of bacon and good sausages.
The very best part of a bowl of porridge is watching the demerara sugar melt on top, I prefer this to a creme brûlée. The perfect winter breakfast. This particular bowl was made in a microwave.
All that remains of a once thriving weekly market in our village is a visiting fish van. It loads up on the fish docks at Grimsby every day and has a weekly routine. Thursday is our day. The haddock was caught off the Faroes, the smoked haddock is cured in Grimsby. The eggs come form the chicken who live in Frances’ and Steven’s back garden. The parsley is from my window sill and the potatoes are from Aldi. A contender, along with rice pudding, for the title of the greatest known comfort food. Perfect at any time of year but even better in the winter.
Stew and dumplings is the most farmhouse of English farmhouse dishes.. The browning on the sides of the pan is the result of 10 hours cooking in a 100 degree oven. The dumplings get added in the last 20 minutes when the oven temperature is turned up. They rise into the lightest and most perfect accompaniment for slowly cooked meat. (In this case stewing steak and lambs kidneys cooked with carrots, onions and leeks.)
You have to have green vegetables with stew.
The final slice. Photograph taken within 24 hours of the cake coming out of the oven. A true sign of a happy home is a cake under a dome. Ours is a very happy home.I felt I deserved more than one treat this week. Is there a more tempting sight to a meat eater than a plate of steak and chips? Asparagus is another vegetable that used to cost a king’s ransom and was only available in exclusive stores. Today it is cheap, plentiful and every bit as tasty as it was when it was considered a rich man’s delicacy.
To finish with, the ultimate poor person’s treat that has found itself shooting up market. Here is haggis (Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race). I have never been to a Burns’ Supper. I don’t drink whisky (in fact I don’t drink anything stronger than tea) and I don’t like bagpipes. I do like the poet though and have chosen to celebrate his birthday with a breakfast of haggis, beans and egg with toast. Haggis is made with every part of the beast that didn’t make the laird’s table. It is an almost perfect example of something special made from the cheapest ingredients.
Here’s to your honest, sonsie face.
Happy Burns Night. Eat well!