Archive for June, 2010


Amy Bloom’s fictional food

June 28, 2010

Don’t you find writing about food becomes awfully twee and tiresome much of the time?

All those clichés  about seasonal produce and sharing tables with family and friends, the delicious aroma of baking from the kitchen, blah blah blah. Or the slickly stupid language of shrine restaurant menus. Remind me to tell you one day of a friend’s visit to a most pretentious molecular gastronomy restaurant – not, I hasten to add, The Fat Duck, where we’ve eaten and which is an unforgettable experience of playful culinary genius, but one presided over by a rather less skilled chef. She said the wait staff behaved like members of a cult and the menu featured stuff like An Interim of Parsley Dust – hilarious.

Turning to food in fiction, it’s just as tricky. If you are as engaged and delighted by cooking and eating as we are, putting the spotlight on food in novels or short stories so often results in gushy, sentimental sop and nostalgic rosy glows. A writing teacher friend of mine, buried in marking one day years ago, sighed, “If I have to read about one more yiayia’s orchard I’m going to puke.”

I am well aware, dear readers, of my own shortcomings in this department, both fictional and non-. From now on I’m going to pretend Gay Bilson is looking over my shoulder when I write about food, for her stern, clear-eyed and unsentimental writing is inspiring.

For now, as an antidote to any food tosh you might have been reading lately, I want to show you how a really good fiction writer does it. I recently read Amy Bloom’s story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.  This is from ‘Between Here and There’.

Most of the mothers in our neighborhood were housewives, like my mother. But my mother was really a very good cook and a very accomplished hostess, even if the things she made and the way she entertained is not how I would have done it (red, white and blue frilled toothpicks in lamb sausage pigs-in-blankets on the Fourth of July, trays of deviled eggs and oeufs en gelée—with tiny tulips of chive and egg yolk decorating each oeuf—to celebrate spring). My mother worked hard at what she considered her job, with no thanks from us and no pay, aside from the right to stay home.

Five minutes before the start of a cocktail party or bridge night, my father would make himself comfortable on the living room couch, dropping cigar ash on the navy-blue velvet cushions, or he’d stand in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the newspaper while my mother and I put out platters and laid hors d’oeuvres around him. Sometimes, he’d sit down at the kitchen table and open the newspaper wide, lowering it almost to the tabletop, so we’d have to move the serving dishes to the counter. One July Fourth, when I was about twelve and Andy was ten, my father picked up an angel on horseback as my mother was carrying the tray past him. “What is this, shit on a stick,” he said, and knocked the whole plate out of her hands, and then there we were, my mother and Andy and me, scrabbling to grab the hot, damp, oily little things from under the sideboard and out of the ficus plants. My father picked up a couple and put them in my mother’s apron pocket, saying, “You kids crack me up.” He was still chuckling when the doorbell rang and my mother went back into the kitchen and Andy and I went to our rooms, and he was still smiling when he opened the door for Mr and Mrs Rachlin, who were always the first.

Now that’s writing.


Baker’s delight

June 22, 2010

How I love winter.

Well actually I don’t love winter, at all; I hate the cold. Ugh. Awful. But I do love winter food, specially the long-cooked, rich, stick-to-the-ribs decadent weekend variety.

And this potato bakey number, which I proudly invented on the weekend and then discovered to be an aeons-old classic called pommes boulangère, is my new favourite thing in the world. It’s got stock. It’s got spuds. My version’s got cream, and it’s got leek. If you can name one thing that’s not to love in this dish, I will personally come to your house and take it off your hands. It is also possibly the simplest potato gratin you’ll ever make, and your dinner guests will get down on their hands and knees and kiss your little toes for it.

I learn the origin of the name (‘baker’s potatoes’) from Damien Pignolet’s lovely book , French: “Tradition has it that one assembed the gratin at home and took it to the baker for cooking in the residual heat of the oven when the day’s baking was finished.”

Quantities and times are a little loose here and will depend on your oven,  the dish and the spuds, but the idea is that the spuds slowly absorb the creamy stock and brown to a lovely chewy crisp on top while remaining soft and creamy beneath.

Pommes boulangère a la Marrickville  (serves 4-6 greedy people)

  • 1kg potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 1 leek, finely sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups (ish) chicken stock
  • ½ cup thickened cream
  • salt & pepper
  • small sprig rosemary
  1. Layer the potatoes and leek & garlic mix in a shallow, oven-proof glass dish.
  2. Pour the stock and cream over the top, and push the rosemary sprig into the middle of the dish till hidden. The liquid should be just enough to come up to the top layer of potato – don’t drown them.
  3. Season (but be careful with the salt, depending on the saltiness of your stock as it’ll intensify as reduces).
  4. Cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from oven and check whether spuds are too dry – add more stock and press the potatoes down into the creamy stock if needed.
  6. Return to the oven without the foil and bake for around 1 hour, or till golden on top, occasionally pressing the spuds into the liquid if necessary.

Remove the bubbling, golden, glistening joy of it from the oven, rest for a few minutes while you carve your roast lamb or chook and pour the wine, and serve hot from the dish at the table.  Then swoon.


The rough stuff

June 14, 2010

How I finally made friends with my rolling pin

This was the week I decided I have been afraid of pastry for too long.

I have always found pastry-making a stressful, lengthy process whereby the entire kitchen is covered in flour, I never have it rolled thinly enough, it always breaks and my pie ends up like some road-accident patchwork, and very often it doesn’t cook through on the bottom. The idea that anyone would want to be a pastry-chef is completely mystifying to me.

My pastry problem was brought home to me once again this week following an attempt during the week to make Maggie Beer’s famous and supposedly foolproof sour cream pastry for a chicken pie – I made it, and it tasted great, but seemed to take me all day, I did hundreds of things wrong and my measurements were out. I think I handled it too much, processed it too much, didn’t have things cold enough, and just generally stuffed it up. So the result, while lovely in flavour, was too crumbly and looked like crap, because of my almost running out of pastry for the pie lids so rolling it way too thin for the tops. Hopeless.

There and then I determined to master at least one basic pastry recipe – this has been a big hole in my repertoire (and my pie crusts) all my cooking life and I’ve relied entirely on frozen pastry forever. Which is fine, but I hate being scared of cooking. Happily, this realisation coincided with a long weekend visit from my sisters, one of whom is the Paragon of Pastry, so I demanded a lesson in her gold standard easy pastry.

The Paragon – whose Christmas mince pies each year provoke the kind of unseemly, grasping scramblefest among her siblings akin to the behaviour of those ghastly bargain-shoppers with faces pressed to the department store sliding doors on Boxing Day – reckons the only pastry she ever makes is the Rough Puff she learned decades ago from Delia Smith, and uses it for everything.

When the Paragon makes it, this pastry is fabulously sturdy, flaky and crisp. She seems to make it in about forty-five seconds flat, and it always works.

I am determined to master it.

So today we had a lesson, and made two batches – one for a quiche and the other for freezing, ready for next time we want some.

Couldn’t find Delia Smith’s particular rough puff recipe, but the web is full of versions which are identical and very simple. The tricky part is not the measurements but the technique.

Rough puff pastry

  • 250g butter, at room temperature but not soft; cut into chunks
  • 250g plain flour
  • 150ml iced water
  • salt
  • squeeze lemon juice


This is the  complicated part, which I’m told improves only with practice. The Paragon’s visit also happened to coincide with my discovery of the video function on my mini camera, so here for your edification is the start of the process. If I’d known it would work so adequately I’d have video’d the whole thing step-by-step, but this start will have to suffice. At least you can see from this bit just how rough is rough – what you’re after, apparently, is great lumps of unmixed butter which when rolled & folded, form the layers of flaky goodness in the pastry. Big no-nos are letting it get too warm, rolling it too much and handling it too much. So there.

Step 1:

Here, then, is the Paragon’s step one: chuck the lumps of butter in with the flour & salt, make a well in the middle and pour in the icy water & lemon juice, and then do this! At the end she’s gathering it up ready to turn out on to the bench. Just like that – big loose, lumpy mess.


Step 2:

Form into a rough rectangle.

Roll the dough in one direction only, pulling in the pastry to keep edges straightish.

Don’t overwork the pastry! Whatever that means!


Step 3:

Give the pastry a quarter turn to the right or left and make two dints with your hand across its length. Push the pastry together from the ends, sort of trapping the air in pockets made by the dints, and roll out again.


Step 4:

Fold the length of pastry into thirds, as shown.

Give the dough another quarter turn and roll out again to three times the length.

Then fold as before, cover with cling film and chill for at least 20 mins before rolling to use. We put it into the pie dish and chilled again.

The filling should go into cold pastry.


The result:

We used the pastry for a quiche base and it turned out rather beautifully, despite my 
Idiot’s mistake #4587: I wrapped the lovely soft pastry around the rolling pin as I’ve seen cool pastry people do, then unrolled it over the quiche tin, then enthusiastically used the roller to slice the pastry off at the fluted edges. Beautiful. Except  I hadn’t actually let the pastry reach the greased bottom of the tin first, so when it did drop, it was way too shallow all around the sides. So, hello patching at which I am now quite accomplished, and goodbye beautifully fluted edges. Hrmph.

But cest la vie – when the quiche (leek & rainbow chard, mmm) was cooked, it looked like this. And the pastry was buttery, crisp and flaky and quite simply Very Good.



Sweetness and light

June 10, 2010

With all the slow cooking and braising we’ve been doing lately, the question of accompaniments arises. It’s easy to tire of couscous, polenta can be tricky and for some reason I’ve never been a big fan of plain rice with non-Asian food. Which is where Skye Gyngell’s sweet potato mash comes in.

You may know of Gyngell, the Australian chef whose Petersham Nurseries Cafe at Richmond in south-west London is now internationally famous. It is a beautiful place to visit when you’re next there – even if you discover, as I did, that the cafe is closed because Gyngell is back in Australia cooking at Sean’s Panaroma! But the nursery’s inexpensive tea house is lovely too, and the whole place is infused with that warm, gentle green softness that only comes with an English summer.

To get there from central London you just jump on a train to Richmond and then take a leisurely walk along the Thames. It seems so peaceful, and yet of course I kept thinking of how much Virginia Woolf is said to have hated living in Richmond (“if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death,” Michael Cunningham has her say in The Hours), and of the river, and the stones in her pockets …

Hmm, how to segue into sweet potato from here? Um … it makes life worth living?

Well, if made with  love, it certainly might help.

This mash recipe is from Gyngell’s book A Year In My Kitchen and is a very classy side dish. Its main claim to fame is Gyngell’s secret-weapon combo of tamari and maple syrup, which give many of her dishes their mysterious richness of flavour.

Add to that the single chilli in the boiling water, and you have a lovely warmth and complexity in what could otherwise be a rather dull side dish. Give it a shot. It’s especially good with Middle-Eastern style braises or tagines.

And buy the book – it is one of my favourites.

  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 1 small red chilli, halved
  • Small bunch coriander, washed
  • 50g butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp tamari (or soy sauce)
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • Salt & pepper
  1. Peel sweet potato and cut into large chunks. Cover with salted cold water and add the chilli. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and simmer  for about 15 minutes or till soft. Drain.
  2. Blend potato, chilli and all remaining ingredients in a food processor, pureeing till very smooth. Adjust seasoning to your liking – the final result, Gyngell says, should be ‘a deep, sweet, hot, velvety taste’.