You know what smells really, really bad? Shrimp paste. Yes, I know, this should come as no surprise to me: it is made from fermented ground shrimps, after all. Also, I really should get over the habit of sniffing curiously at things which I know will be particularly offensive to my nostrils, especially when I’m going to put those things in my food. I used to do this with fish sauce, too: eurgh, fermented anchovies, yek (surprise, surprise, right?), then I’d put some in my dinner, and then I wouldn’t want to eat my dinner because it smelled of fermented anchovies.
I have just about made my peace with the fish sauce – I went on a Thai cookery course a little while ago, and it turns out that the secret to making Thai food that tastes actually properly like Thai food is to put huge quantities of fish sauce in everything. This is distressing at first, but the trick is not to inhale while you pour, and definitely, definitely not to immediately run the measuring spoon under a hot tap right near where your nose is.
Yes, yes. I know. The first time I saw this recipe header, my eyes skipped straight to the next page, too: lentils? and cabbage? I can think of far nicer things to put in my mouth, thanks, like for starters this lamb, beer and black bean chilli right across the page. It turns out, though, that this harsh judgement was grossly unfounded. Far from being the boring health-fest that I’d imagined – you know, the kind of thing that people on the cabbage soup diet might eat as a treat, if they were feeling really naughty – this has become one of my favourite weekday, easy-to-knock-together meals. Instincts, you have failed me. (Yes, again).
After dismissing the recipe as fit only for masochists, I happened to pick up the same recipe book a bit later on in the month (like, three-days-before-payday later), and suddenly – in the way these things do – the whole idea seemed much more appealing. Something to use up that manky half head of cabbage in the fridge? Plus a 57p tin of lentils, and that half a lemon that’s been knocking around for longer than I’m prepared to publicly admit? Fantastic! And oh, what I’d been missing.
I’m very excited today: I finally have my writing room back again, reclaimed from the pile of John’s printing stuff which has been occupying it for the last few months. I probably should point out – before you start wondering how an unpaid blogger can justify having an entire room dedicated solely to writing, decide that property prices in Bath must really have hit rock-bottom and rush, headlong, for the estate agents – that in this flat, ‘writing room’ is just a slightly grander name for what other people would probably call the ‘utility room’. You know, the one with the freezer in, and the slug pellets. I write resting my feet on the pipes for the washing machine (shh! don’t tell John – I’m sure that’s the sort of thing you’re not meant to do with washing machine pipes), with a lovely view out of the window over the wall that separates our path from the neighbours’. Luxury, I’m sure you will agree.
In order for me to have my
corner elegant writing retreat back, I have had to move several racks of moveable type into the corner of the living room, a reallocation I distinctly remember John agreeing to. He denies all knowledge of this, but then I have been known to hold entire conversations with him in my head, and then argue furiously that he absolutely definitely said, in real life – last Tuesday, in the salad aisle at the supermarket – whatever it was that my imagination actually made him say. That’s normal, right? In any case, It Is Done, so most likely it will stay done, at least until the accompanying press makes its way home.
Would you like a tip? It is particularly useful if you discover you have run out of baking powder in the middle of a recipe which requires it, and it is this: bicarbonate of soda is not a suitable substitute for baking powder. Certainly not weight-for-weight. Have you ever eaten pancakes with a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda in? I would recommend you do not.
Perhaps – just perhaps – I should take this discovery as a sign that I need to get over my aversion to leaving the house mid-recipe. The problem is that a) when I am cooking, it is because I want to eat, soon, and also b) – have you not noticed? – it has only just stopped raining. For the first time since May 2011. Why on earth would I go out there? Yes, never mind that we moved into a flat less than a minute’s walk from the shops, or that I own several and various items of clothing specifically designed to keep the wearer dry: it’s wet! and, usually, dark (although not any more – is anyone else eternally grateful for the return of British Summer Time?), and the shop is so very far. I have to go all the way across the road to get there.
Did you miss me? (correct answer: yes. Feel free to lie, if necessary) Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to abandon you there these last few days, but we have had my parents’ 30th anniversary party to cater for, John, my sister and I – full of people I have known for most of my life, and, more importantly, two people who have known me for all of it (plus a bit, but lets not think about that part too much, eh?). So, you know, no pressure.
Things we have found out, though:
1. Everything goes swimmingly in the kitchen and we all get along fabulously, just as long as everyone does exactly as I say. I got “yes chef”‘ed at one point, which cheered me up immensely;
2. If you wish to make 25 panna cotta topped with some passion fruit stuff, you may want to inform all of your local supermarkets in advance. 14 passion fruit will not be sufficient. Raspberry topped panna cotta is, luckily, also delicious; and
3. Really and truly, the most delicious thing you can do with a couple of duck breasts is to hot smoke them. Yes, it is perhaps a little bit of a faff to do so, but no more than juicing 14 passion fruits, and we all happily spend our Friday nights doing that, don’t we. Don’t we?
I won’t lie. This is a bit of an undertaking. However. However! Have you tried them? You really must. And I’m not sending you mine, oh no.
My garden is mostly escapee herbs: mint grows through the gravel path by the front door, I have to fight through huge clouds of oregano to hang the washing out, and lemon balm has colonised the remainder of the poor excuse for a lawn. I think I have found horseradish, as well, colonising the scrappy bit by the hydrangea, but I’m trying quite hard not to think about that – where would my wildflower meadow go then, I ask you? Certainly not at the end of the garden, where a solitary clump of chives vies for land with whatever those yellow buttercuppy flowers are (well, my horticultural knowledge does only extend so far).
Of course, this is all very pleasing in summer, when we can waft sunnily past the herbs and pretend we are somewhere on a Mediterranean hillside, but half-dead craggy broken stems poking through the front path do not look quite so picturesque in March. Certainly not in the snow. Nor the sleet, nor even the never-ending grey that some thoughtless weather god has seen fit to grace my corner of England with for the last hundred years (yes, literally).
However! It must be spring – the oregano is struggling back to life, underneath the manky bits I still haven’t quite got round to chopping back (I am pretending that they are ‘ladybird hotels’. This seems to be working so far – either that, or John is resigned to my idleness), which means, of course, that it is time to eat peppers! and aubergines! and tomatoes! again. No?
I am keeping an eagle eye on the weather, now that it is March. One of the most eagerly awaited events of my culinary year is the first meal eaten out of doors, and I would not want the sunshine to sneak up unexpected and catch me unawares in a jumper and wellies with a four-hour curry on the hob and jacket potatoes in the oven. I need to be prepared, with summery, speedy things in the fridge – crab! wine! salad! – and preferably a sundress on, so that I can rush outside at the first sign of sunshine and install myself at the garden table, basking in the rays. (Or something like that, at least, given that the English weather gods are somewhat unhelpful with regards to the ‘basking’ part).
Luckily, there are far more committed diarists than I, who pay attention to these things and write them down, so that the rest of us can cruise through February serene in the knowledge that it will be too a) rainy, b) cold and c) downright depressing to eat our lunches outside (what do you mean, you knew that already?). Nigel Slater is one such (although the diary format has its pitfalls – I can’t read more than a month ahead in his Kitchen Diaries without suffering crippling strawberry / asparagus / broad bean envy, which as you can imagine severely limits my reading abilities) and somewhere among the entries advocating cheese as a perfectly acceptable dinner, March 19th is noted as the first day suitable for an outside supper. We are nearly there, everyone – man the vineyards!