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?
It’s around this time of year that I can get a little fed up of side dishes involving brassicas and root vegetables. It has to be said, though, that if you were to take this blog as evidence, you would probably conclude that I eat neither kale nor potatoes as often as I eat pies or cake. Strictly speaking, this is not 100% true – it’s just that I’m not sure how interested you’d be in recipes for steamed broccoli, or colcannon, or even kale sauteed with chilli, garlic and ginger. I have been imagining that if you were that keen, you could probably work those out for yourself (especially the first one), and so my writing efforts are far better used in telling you about 101things to do with pastry, no?
If you are feeling equally frustrated by the limited options available at the greengrocers, this bright, lightly vinegared dish is a perfect way of cutting through the seasonal monotony. This is admittedly probably partly due to the fact that peppers have no season here in rainy England, so are shipped to us all year from halfway around the world, unlike the more prosaic winter vegetables – I can’t remember ever seeing kale in a supermarket in July, for example, but perhaps that’s because I never want kale in July. I’m always far too busy stuffing my fat little berry-stained face with dressed crab, tomato salads and crunchy green beans.
I suspect a conspiracy. I say this because it seems the whole world has been out to hide from me just how staggeringly easy it is to make gnocchi out of a squash: the entire internet seems to be full of recipes designed specifically to put prospective gnocchi-ers off of making the stuff. An example – several have you roast a squash, then re-cook the – already roasted – squash in a saucepan (stirring constantly, of course) before measuring out exactly one cup of the resultant goo and – get this – reserving the rest for another use. Because of course, I like to have puréed squash around the house, just in case. What? you don’t? Meanwhile, you are simultaneously cooking One Potato, which you had the forethought to weigh in the supermarket to make sure it was the correct size, and the frankly Herculean list of tasks continues regardless until you have used All The Pans, or collapsed from exhaustion, or both.
On an entirely (ahem) unconnected note, it has been pointed out to me that sometimes, in the kitchen, I am not at my most reasonable. I enjoy tasks that other – more sane – people actively try to avoid: chopping mountains of vegetables, or grinding spices by hand, for example. I was caught julienning a whole celeriac by hand, not so long ago. I do, however, object to recipes which insist on lots of labour-intensive steps and a mountain of washing-up when there is a much, much easier way of making something equally delicious: need drier squash? Chop it into smaller pieces, and roast it at a lower heat for a bit longer. You’ve got the knife and chopping board dirty already, and turned the oven on anyway, and actually all of our time is much better spent making sure there’s a bottle of wine in the fridge, no?
The food police have taken over in my office at the moment, and my guess is that yours isn’t much different: it’s January, and therefore nice food is Not Allowed. I am plotting the revolution as we speak. Come join me behind the barricades – there will be banana cake (with chocolate bits in! oh, the decadence), and these pies, and of course anything that you fancy bringing along. Be careful which friends you bring, though: no-one will be allowed to gaze covetously at any mid-morning snack while they tuck forlornly into their third Ryvita of the day – these people will be unceremoniously evicted from the brotherhood.
It perhaps does not reflect very well on me as a person that I am entirely intentionally bringing in pies for lunch, while what seems like the whole of the rest of the office munches their way through salad after salad. I could be worse, however – I suspect there are those among us who are actively pursuing the make-everyone-else-fat-so-I-look-thinner school of January dieting, otherwise known as bringing in all the spare Christmas chocolate biscuits for everyone else to eat.
What nobody except you and I needs to know, though, is that these are secretly very healthy pies – you see all those vegetables? Easily enough to cancel out the butter in the pastry, by my reckoning (although I do have a record of not really subjecting these hypotheses to proper scientific analysis. Please don’t do so on my behalf, though – ignorance is bliss, after all). In all seriousness, these are packed with good things: squash, spinach, lentils, chickpeas – the lamb is almost a secondary concern. They include more vegetables than meat, and more pulses than either – perfect for a January weekday lunch. If you want to up the filling-to-pastry ratio, just make the pies bigger, or make pasties instead, or serve this for dinner with rice and pickles. It’s delicious either way.
I had a spectacular recipe fail last night – the kind where you skim through a recipe, thinking about how delicious your dinner is going to be (after all, what could go wrong with the combination of lamb dhansak and shortcrust pastry?) and completely fail to notice that making it will require your undivided attention for several hours.
In this case, it was necessary to chop a mountain of ingredients (including butternut squash, the most unwieldy of all the vegetables), brown the meat, simmer for an hour and three quarters, leave to cool, then encase in pastry and bake. Easily acheivable on a weeknight, no? We had cheese on toast for dinner last night, at 9.30pm, while a pot of delicious-smelling curry simmered away on the hob in the next room, fifteen minutes into its 105-minute-marathon.
The other day, a colleague followed me part-way down the corridor at work in order to compliment me on my shoes. I was, of course, flattered (particularly because they are very old, and slightly odd), but after very little time I found myself entirely at a loss as to how one is expected to continue a conversation about shoes. This is fairly shocking, especially given that I can have long and involved discussions about the best way to prepare courgettes. Only with appropriately vetted people, mind, don’t worry – I’m not that person.
When pressed for a definitive answer, I tend to plump for long, tagliatelle-esque ribbons. Although I wouldn’t dream of roasting anything other than ¼-inch-thick rounds, ribbons are far more fun to twiddle round a fork, and cook in no time at all. I suppose you could use a mandolin if you were the sort of highly organised person to have such a thing, but as we have managed to move into the only flat with a kitchen smaller than the one we left, I use a vegetable peeler.
Once you have ribboned all of the courgettes you currently own for the sheer pleasure of seeing if you can get all the strips to line back up into a courgette shape (no? just me?), by far the best thing you can do with them is turn them into either garlicky-courgettes-with-gruyere pasta, or these little balls of deliciousness. Strictly speaking they are a starter, but I have eaten them for dinner – on their own, off the baking tray, on those evenings where you have just enough time to strip 3 courgettes, mix up a big bowl of stuff and shape and bake your dinner before running out of the door. Cheese on toast would probably be the most time efficient option in these circumstances, but I do like a challenge.
I recently introduced a new system into our kitchen. John received this news with the usual whole-hearted enthusiasm that he reserves for my systems, but nonetheless, I think you will agree, it is an excellent system. Here is how to try it out:
Take one set of post-it note page markers, in four colours, and a selection of recipe books. Mark your pages as follows. Colour 1: “Mmm, this looks delicious”. Colour 2: “I was so right, this was delicious”. Colour 3: “Tried it, not brilliant, but edible”, and Colour 4: “That was dreadful. Let’s never sully our palates with this again”.
Clear winner in the most-used recipe book category turned out to be Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey – which ended up with a veritable forest of post-its (until I ran out of the “delicious” colour half-way through, that is, forcing me to abandon the whole idea until more could be procured).
My intention was to cook one of my favourite recipes from the book, – Indonesian stir-fried rice – take some attractive-enough photographs of it, and then tell you how you, too, can share the joy. However, due to the kind of minor roof-related issue that results in an indoor water butt made from a margarine tub, some hosepipe and a bin, none of the light switches downstairs are currently operational. This means that the only photograph I have to show you is the one above, quite a long way off both attractive and appetising. I promise you better things next time, and a quite delicious recipe (despite everything) this time.