Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Indian sweets

Shiny amber-coloured little whirls of sweetness, deep-fried, jalebis are as pleasing as a proper meringue, a good roast potato, or a Black Magic "Liquid Cherry". Crisp shell on the outside, melting on the inside.

It was our mother who introduced them to my brother and me, in Coventry, where we grew up. She nipped into one of those little Indian grocers on the Foleshill Road and returned triumphantly with a brown paper bag, which had already become translucent with syrup. She took out one for each of us, having to separate the glistening orange spirals carefully so as not to break them. Somehow they avoided being sickly sweet.

At around the same time that we were introduced to Jalebis, there lived across the road from our house an Indian family with a boy about my age. We used to play at each other's house. One day, I was invited to his birthday party. His mother made the food and laid it on the table: a birthday tea of the seventies with sandwiches, biscuits and an iced cake. A quintessentially English tea. Save that the sandwiches were filled with a mixture of jam and lettuce. While several of the other mothers at the party looked pityingly at this combination, their children wolfed down the sandwiches until not one remained.

Travelling to India myself many years later, I recall the pudding on my first night: a bowl of spongy balls in a sugar syrup accompanied by, my host told me, sweet pureed carrot. It was too much. I heaved as I forced some down my unwilling throat.

But I did try jalebis once more, bought from a shop in the southern town of Vellore. I managed to drop one immediately after walking out of the shop. Ignoring the state of the ground, I recklessly picked up the jalebi and ate it. The following day I spent in bed. Whether the jalebis had been responsible I did not know. One thing was certain. They were not as good as the ones from Coventry.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Tinned spag

The snow on the ground today brings back memories of Aunt Joy who lived at the bottom of a series of zig-zagging tree-lined lanes in Surrey. Little Coldharbour, the house was called. Dark woods behind, brown fields in front. Whenever there was snow at Little Coldharbour, our mother told us, the road became impassable. Half a century before, Aunt Joy had fallen ill with double pneumonia, following a blizzard. Her mother, Ellen, my great grandmother, had had to walk along the tops of the holly hedges to summon medical help. Although we rarely, if ever, had to contend with snow ourselves, visits to see her were not without a sense of adventure. My mother was not particularly talented at driving or finding the way anywhere, and so there was always an unbreathed tension: would we ever get there? "Signs for Penge", muttered my mother. That name grew to have the resonance of the golden gate to Samarkand.

Aunt Joy was usually stretched on the day bed in her sun room as we arrived at last at Little Coldharbour. Grapevines hung from the ceiling but I never saw any grapes. There was a set of eight bells on the wall with a stick, inviting any passer-by to play a scale. Beyond the sun room was a windowless room stuffed with books, sofas and blankets. It was inside that darkened sitting room that Aunt Joy's sweet cupboard was located. Inside, row upon row of jars, as though it were a miniature sweet shop. Sherbet lemons. Dolly Mixture. Mint Imperials. Pear drops. My brother and I were allowed free licence to delve among the jars and choose, which we would do, repeatedly, during visits. Even our mother was indulgent on such occasions, despite her general antipathy towards "sugary sweets" and, worse still in her eyes, "cheap sweets": "You'll rot your teeth."

Aunt Joy was also fond of allowing us to guzzle fizzy drinks. "Kids' booze, I call it", she would announce, brandishing a bottle of lemonade. "I always think it's unfair for you to have nothing while the adults are all boozing away." Another Aunt Joy treat was one of her famous Ice Cream Sodas. Drunk using a straw: cream soda in the glass followed by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. When our mother was out of the room, Aunt Joy would encourage my brother to blow bubbles in his glass.

Those, then, were the between meal snacks. What about the main meals? Aunt Joy had a number of favourite sayings, now sounding slightly ominous. They included: "I've always been a good cook" and "I've always liked experimenting with food." The experiments were conducted in her rather grubby and damp kitchen. At its rear was a larder to make your heart sink. Row upon row of tins. Tinned beansprouts, tinned meatballs, tinned cream, tinned condensed milk. It was exactly the same larder which had entranced her little nieces - my mother and her younger sister - when they had gone to stay in Bletchingley in the early fifties. At supper time, Aunt Joy would say: "Like some spag? Or baked beans?" According to my aunt CeCe: "We always had tinned spag as we weren't allowed it at home. We adored it."

As adults, though, those nieces' tastes developed into deep distrust of anything emanating from Aunt Joy's kitchen. For instance, her "Chinese" cooking, consisting of rare chicken with Cook-In Sauce and those tinned beansprouts ("I've always liked foreign grub"). But we, the great nephews and great nieces, loved it. My cousin Tom used to say indignantly "But I LOVE Aunt Joy's cooking", whenever anyone suggested the contrary.

The last time I recall visiting Aunt Joy was to pick her up to take her to her niece's wedding reception in the neighbouring county. The same niece who remembered loving the tinned spag. My mother's mini had something wrong with it on the day and the added weight of Aunt Joy caused the car to splutter in indignation. At the foot of one hill, my mother had to get us out of the car to walk to the top. The reception over – no tinned spag in sight - we dropped Aunt Joy at Little Coldharbour for the last time. In her absence, the little car sped away without difficulty.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Chicken skins

I get very irritated when I am eating chicken with somebody else and see that somebody else carefully putting the chicken skin to one side, not with a view to saving the best bit till last, but to outright rejection.

In order to be worth eating, however, a chicken skin needs to be crisp. Never flabby. In other words, the skin should always be removed for the purposes of a casserole or a curry. But not, in my view, discarded. This is what to do with them, as a little reward, once you have put the casserole or whatever in the oven.

Slosh some olive oil and sea salt on the skins and rub them together. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan. Get it pretty hot. Then put in the chicken skins, pressing and spreading them very flatly across the pan with a spatula. There will be lots of smoke and possibly even sparks. Sprinkle a little curry powder (Bolst's for preference) over the top and then turn the skin and, if necessary, add some more curry powder. Allow the skins to crisp but not burn in the pan. Every so often, tip off the excess fat. Right at the end, when the skins are as crisp as they will get, squeeze on some lemon juice. More smoke. Tip on to a plate and then eat. The photograph isn't just of chicken skins: there is partridge, poussin, guinea fowl and pheasant as well. A feast following the making of last year's cold raised game pie.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Mashed potato

It is odd how something so simple can on occasions be so utterly revolting. Take Smash: dried mashed potato in a packet. The most successful advertising I've ever experienced, judging by the distance between the advert and reality. The description of the carefully selected, beautifully peeled and prepared potato... What on earth was my mother thinking of when she bought it? Perhaps I inveigled her. The finished result was utterly lacking in flavour, texture or integrity.

Another thought that occurs to me, this time in relation to school mashed potato. How was it that it was so nasty yet in different ways depending on the day it was served? And how could the powers that be have decreed that it ever be served with salad (Monday lunches)?

Here is how to make mashed potato that sings. Peel, chop into small pieces and boil your potatoes. Meanwhile, cut a small onion as finely as you can. When the potatoes are cooked, drain them, then throw in the onion, a large lump of unsalted butter, a glug of double cream, some salt crystals and freshly ground black pepper and mash away furiously. I use a potato ricer.

As you'll have gathered, this is not one of those recipes where precision in terms of quantities is required. What is necessary is thorough mashing and heat.

A final observation. "Mustard mash" is something you often now find in the kind of pub that serves lamb shank. It is my theory that potatoes and mustard do not go together. However, I have no difficulty with a dab of mustard on the side to go with the sausages that so often accompany mash: though it was only in the "Dandy" that they were ever stuck into the mash, as a feast for Tom Tum or Greedy Pigg.

Shreds of cabbage

A simple New Year recipe. As with pork, the Chinese know instinctively how to cook cabbage. By removing rather than adding water.

1/2 a white cabbage, shredded
1/2 a small onion, finely chopped
A splash of olive oil
A dash of soy sauce

Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the soy sauce. Then add the onion and fry gently. Then the cabbage. Stir constantly. Eventually, the cabbage will cook in its own steam but you have to be careful not to let this burn. Takes about 20 minutes.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


This recipe comes from my mother's own recipe book. It was two years ago to the day that she died and this was one of the things she would always make at Christmastime when "Turn the gravlax!" became a twice-daily used expression, whether as a command or an intention.

Since then, making the Christmas Gravlax has been my brother Will's task. The photograph is of a plate of his, from Christmas just past.

I think it must have been Lotta, the family au pair and still dear friend, from Sweden, who stayed with us in 1982 - 1983, who introduced her and us to it. Sometimes I see it in recipe books written as "Gravadlax", sometimes as "Gravlax". Mum's recipe, then, exactly as she wrote it down, but whether this is from her head or copied from a Swedish recipe book, I am not sure. The last line (plainly her own view) was clearly added much later.

2 1/2 lb salmon trout,
20 peppercorns,
6 tablespoons salt,
 tablespoons sugar,
2 oz dill leaves (chopped) (fresh if poss).

For sauce:
3 tablespoons French mustard,
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar,
3 tablespoons oil,
salt, pepper and sugar to taste,
3 tabespoons finely chopped dill leaves.

Split fish in two and bone. Crush pepper corns, mix with salt, sugar and dill. Sprinkle third into dish. Lay on a fillet of fish, skin side down; spread another third of dry marinade, cover with remaining fillet skin side up and pack remaining marinade over and around. Cover with cling film and weight. Leave in fridge or cool place for 36 - 48 hours turning every 12 hours. Will keep one week in fridge.

When fish has completed marinating, will be surrounded by liquid. Drain fish and scrape any solids left from marinade away. Cut horinzontally into wafer thin slices. Fold into pretty curves on serving dish. Serve with rye bread, lemon wedges and mustard and dill sauce.

Don't bother about peppercorns or sauce! Serve with lemon segments.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Raw chicken

Steak tartare is one thing. This is one of the few memories that still makes me shudder.

It happened on a train quite a few years ago. My mother and I had decided to get a picnic at M & S for the journey and had found all sorts of good things. Making the mistake of shopping when we were hungry, we bought far too much: little samosas, lamb koftas, sun-blush tomatoes, among other things. And some appetising-looking chicken pieces, in breadcrumbs. We probably had in mind a rather delicious version made by my godmother, Hilary, which she used to make for an annual picnic at Hever Castle. Another story. Back to the train. We must have bitten into our own chicken pieces simultaneously...and then looked at each other. The insides were raw. In fairness to those who had sold it, the package (which we had not read in our haste to buy before our train left and then eat) made it very clear that the chicken pieces needed cooking first. Before then, I had always regarded the expression "stomach-churning" with suspicion. No longer.