So it goes

 

 

 

What have I gone and done? Even after proselytising just the other day about the necessity for sticking to the script when it comes to certain dishes I am now guilty of messing things up, of free-associating, of going all stream-of-consciousness – on a salad, of all things.

It’s not just a salad either. Gloria wouldn’t like me calling it that, neither would she appreciate it if I left out cucumber from the recipe, despite my naive incredulity at its traditional presence as a key ingredient. I’m talking about panzanella, of course – the keen-eyed of you will have noticed the pictorial clues –  although given my experimentation I’m tempted to rename it as ‘canzanella’ for reasons which will become apparent.

Sitting at work I was, where I am wont to mull over the food preparation for the evening, a multi-stranded thought process encompassing the presence or otherwise of required ingredients in my store cupboard (singular), following that the detail of where I can purchase those items which, as I scan, are absent from my shelves. That detail involves a mental geographical assimilation of the city: the likely routes I am to take, which means of transport will be most favourable in each case, whether I go home first, how far I can totter on an overloaded bicycle, why there isn’t a magic shop very near to where I live where all the things I need are always available.

But half the fun is finding everything. I like a mini-adventure, a quest if you will. I knew that at home I had half a stale ciabatta, I want to say loafing about, getting staler. But I wasn’t sure if it had got to the point where even a douse of red-wine vinegar and oil wouldn’t revive it. That’s when, mid-afternoon, the clock ticking, I decided to augment the ‘salad’ with beans. Yes. Cannellini, borlotti. That kind.

The route home was made, as ever, by way of Twin’s where I was able to get the aforementioned vinegar as well as sundry other items. But then, arriving home, I realised I had no red onions and so a visit to the unfriendly greengrocer’s had to be made. The woman grunted at me as usual and by now our conversation exists entirely of my nervous half-smile and her throaty non-committance. I know my onions here, that’s for sure.

The bread was salvageable and, indeed, ideal. I soused it and left it to soak, before halving tomatoes, letting them macerate with salt, pepper and oil. I love the word macerate, it seems so violent-sounding for what is in fact an exercise in softening. A mix of lacerate and massacre. Meanwhile I cooked the beans – the horror, the horror – having decided that I wanted a more substantial dish than the original version affords. These I cooked gently with the onion so the flavours combined. Everything else could just be jumbled in together: the cucumber – yes – skinned and chopped, capers, torn basil leaves, all combined with the bread and tomatoes, both oozing delectable juices. I left the beans to cool before chucking those in too. In the end they didn’t really add anything except a little more bulk.

Probably the jury’s out on canzanella. Typing the word into a popular search engine reveals its popularity as a surname. There is also a B&B in Naples named so – the city I can vouch for, the establishment not – which makes me think that I haven’t just coined a word but merely appropriated it from some other context. Possible derivation from ‘canzone’ which means song, and so I get an image, ludicrously, of the old stereotypes of the moustachioed mandolin player at the window of some local Lollobrigida, the cicadas humming in the olive groves and everybody blissfully uncaring of economic meltdown, social deprivation and political corruption. Eppur si muove.

There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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I Am The Hero

Leaving tomorrow for ten days so a quick inventory of my fridge’s contents: a potato; some old celery; herbs – dried bay, thyme, rosemary; palmful of button mushrooms; half a large onion; a third of a stale-ish baguette; one egg; block of cheddar cheese.

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Nothing much to do with the egg unless I make a large potato cake and have a fried egg on top. There’s the issue then of keeping it for when I return. It seems to me that it won’t freeze well and, anyway, I don’t much fancy a big potato tablet today. The egg can wait.

It’ll be another soup then and, to this end, I have augmented my solid if unspectacular set of fridge-bottom staples with a leek from the greengrocer’s around the corner and a large clove of garlic from beside the stove. My one reservation in making soup is the lack of any handy stock. One of the reasons why my previous effort was so successful was the chicken broth used; I had the foresight to use the bones of a roast I had made for that purpose. I have learned how to make a scratch chicken stock, and I’ll include the features of that in a future post, but for now it will be a reliance on the flavours I already have, some careful seasoning and judicious use of a stock cube.

All this weighing up of what I have to hand, working out what it can be used for, puts me in mind of one thing, and then another.

At the beginning of many fantasy role-play gamebook series, most notably Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy line and the Lone Wolf sequence, the protagonist, the YOU, is given a run-down of what possessions he/she already has and what others, within certain and changing limitations, might be added at the outset of any particular quest as suitable supplements determined by their potential usefulness.

Typically, at least in the early Fighting Fantasy books, it was along the lines of ‘leather armour, sword and backpack’, plus provisions, and the adventurer got to choose one of three potions for boosting either of the Luck, Skill or Stamina values which made up YOUR profile. As the series grew, and different authors involved, so elements such as spells and other special features were included, depending on the type of adventure about to take place and the hero profile required. Early example of adventure sheet below, something of a blank canvas:

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Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf was different in that the protagonist was always the same character, the titular hero no less, and so a progression through the books, which followed a linear narrative of sorts, meant a gradual acquisition (and therefore casting off) of various pieces of equipment, items, disciplines and skills. The books differed also in the sense they specified where the various pieces of equipment and items could be carried: in the hand, in the belt-pouch, in the backpack, and so on.

Cooking is a kind of journey, as is this blog, and it’s natural before embarking on any meal preparation to take stock of firstly, what one has, and, then, what one needs. Sometimes I wear an apron, and I carry a wooden spoon in one hand, knife to chop and slice in the other. Like today I size up what is available and make a dish on that basis, adding as appropriate.

This moreover is a new adventure, a new quest. In the recent past I might have been tempted to look contemptuously at the contents of my fridge and decide there was nothing worth using, or nothing I could be bothered to use. I may well have gone shopping, purchasing sundry other ingredients – the point is, this conglomeration of objects is what I have, so I should make the best of them. Just as I possess various skills and disciplines of my own that, in the past, I have not fully appreciated or utilised. In the gamebooks you learn to use what you have wisely, whether it be in your hand, in your belt-pouch, or even in your head; such care and respect does not necessarily mean a positive outcome, because some things are out of your control – the dice rolls against you, for instance – but, by arming yourself in the best way possible, by recognising what you have, you are at least better able to deal with things.

In the past few years interest in the Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, to name but two, has been resurgent, leading to reprints, greater discussion (especially online), electronic versions of the books for iOS and android, and much more. Joe Dever allowed almost the entire back catalogue of Lone Wolf to be republished online, here, to create a ‘lasting legacy.’ For Fighting Fantasy there have been various print runs, containing some, but not all, of the original set. The most recent seems to be dumbing down slightly, especially in terms of the artwork (an index of the original artists can be found here), and in if you have a mind it is worth scouring charity bookshops across the UK for the original series, some editions of which fetch a pretty penny.

Failing that there are now quite a few blogs dedicated to playthroughs of one or both series, of which the most readable and dedicated can be found here, here and here.

But I was making soup. To maximise flavour I make sure to give each ingredient enough cooking time before adding anything else. So I cook the potatoes, seasoned, gently in olive oil to brown slightly, then every other component in turn: the leeks and celery, washed and rinsed; onion and mushrooms, coarsely chopped; rosemary and thyme, finely: bay leaves, cast in. Water to cover with half a chicken stock cube crumbled in. I simmer until the potatoes have more or less dissolved then blend, before cooking down potentially to thicken more.

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As in many of my attempts at the role-play adventures, I make a mistake, in this case forgetting to remove the bay before blending. This error has not led to instant death, I am pleased to say, and the results would have been worse had the herb been of the fresh variety, yet I am concerned the soup will be overpowered by its taste nonetheless.

The result is a light green and grey, gently bay-flavoured mellow soup which, jazzed up by some quickly-fried croutons and a grating of cheddar makes a more than satisfactory meal. The absence of proper stock is evident, as the overall savour is mild rather than robust. What I started with appeared a meagre selection yet, with some dedication and care, I was able to transform the ingredients into a tasty and hearty soup. Lunch made and a lesson learned (and barely a flicker of meat). Also, the day drab, an atmosphere more befitting to the making.

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Day of the Soup

Almost the perfect day for making soup. Many of the ingredients necessary for this most Sunday of Sunday activities, along with a long laundry cycle and a second cup of tea, were present: indolence of a day with nothing particular to do; cold symptoms – the muzzy head like some good hangovers; the afternoon drear outside and perhaps chilly too, dissuading any plans for a long walk.

I had the first two but the day itself was wonderfully clear and filled with sunshine, the air clean and fresh, the route around the park beckoning. I had a walk, to get the items I needed, indeed, the ingredients I had woken up thinking about. As the shop which sells fresh thyme, generic Italian-style cured ham and any kind of cream is a fair trek away, 8860 steps round trip my doting mobile app informs me, I now no longer felt guilty spending the rest of the day indoors, involved largely in the preparing, cooking and consumption of soup.

So I shlepped about the apartment, making soup in stages. It was always going to be a squash or pumpkin-based affair, though still not sure of the difference. In the greengrocer I pointed to what looked like a huge squash, certainly not the classic pumpkin shape one recognises from the commercialised approximation of the ancient and mysterious celebrations at Winter’s Eve. My translation app had it down as that, however, rather than squash, and so, after some inter-linguistic kerfuffle, I got the man to slice off a large portion with his shiny cleaver.

I had in my fridge a nice dirt-bejewelled carrot which would give depth to the orange colour and the aforementioned ham would add the required saltiness. The soup would work equally well without any meat and indeed, for some months now, I have been conscious of the amount of meat I consume, after reading an article by George Monbiot. His take is that the amount of land given over to grazing is disproportionate to the amount of meat actually consumed, at least in the UK. It is a phenomenal waste of resources, he argues, a needless ruination of countryside areas which could be left to their natural wild states, thus encouraging micro-systems to thrive and endangered species to return.

Not to mention the ethical questions regarding meat production. It seems as though more questions are being asked of meat’s place on our tables, with many meat-eaters going through trials of abstention, including a friend of mine, here. I’m still playing around with the issues, wondering where I stand. Certainly I think for now an awarenesscan lead to a gradual reduction in meat consumption and I am pleasantly surprised that, so far on this blog, I have included no recipes which have meat as the main focus.

In the meantime I mooched. The squash was to be roasted with three cloves of garlic (added halfway through the cooking) and added to a pan-cooked conglomeration of carrot, rosemary, thyme and ham. What? Roasted? But how….It’s here I have to admit to leading you a little up the garden path. When I started this blog and decided on its name, describing the mean amenities to hand, I did not possess an oven. Now I do. It’s a portable affair, limited in its scope but more than handy. It sits on top of the fridge in place of the microwave which came with the apartment and which I used but once.

The squash took about an hour to soften and colour sufficiently. Mixed with the other cooked ingredients, the garlic squeezed sluggishly from its crackly skin, I poured in a Tupperware-tubful of chicken stock I had prepared some days previously and brought all to the boil then simmer with a lid for about twenty minutes.

When I felt things should be ready I had a taste and decided I was right. Last but one addition was about 25ml of cream to thicken and then I smoothed it all gently with the whirring of a hand blender. Chopped parsley and trickle of olive oil to finish and there it was. Immensely satisfying to both make and eat, it brought the day together, from concept to conclusion. I have enough for three large bowlfuls.