Monthly Archives: August 2010

custard for one, blackberries, discoveries

Blackberries have a habit of ripening first beside dusty roads, where cars fling up a good deal of fine grit at them so you’re prevented from eating them there and then. Or they ripen somewhere inaccessible, beside motorways, or, as I noticed the other weekend sitting on the Overground, right beside dicey railway tracks near Kensal Rise. Blackberries straight from the bramble are one of the loveliest stolen treats, not least because they tell me that summer is slipping into early autumn, perhaps my favourite time of year. I found a handful yesterday in Granchester beside the rough little road that leads to the lido carpark. I picked them and walked back to Queens’ with them cupped in my hands.

When I got back I tumbled them into a bowl, immersed them in cold water and left them for a while, so that little bugs and dust would float away from the berries.

Yesterday at the market I found that the greengrocers had started stocking discoveries. I bought a couple of pounds and ate one on my way to Sainsbury’s.  I’m charmed again and again by this apple, the way, after a brief rub on your shirt, it shines up to a really sluttish red, its strawberry sweetness, its pink-veined innards, its appley tartness.

This morning I made a birchermuesli of sorts, the first for a while as (Bramleys aside) I’ve been avoiding apples till the beginning of the season: a grated discovery, yoghurt, oats, prunes, a good pinch of cinnamon, milk to loosen. I left it to stand for half an hour, time for a couple of coffees and a flick through the newspaper websites, for the oats to swell, and the apple to lend its rosey juice to the mix. A good fragrant honey – I’ve got some Manuka at the moment which has resinous spiciness – is in order here; the early apples are quite tart. Later in the season I might want lemon juice.

Today after dinner I wanted blackberry and apple, a combination which, like the discoveries themselves, I fall in love with year in, year out, and say to myself Oh yes! Some things are just meant to be! I’m still in my little gyp-room kitchen, so there’s no oven. I could murder a blackberry and apple crumble and custard, steaming and gummy with fruit at the edges – or a pie, with thin, sandy pastry and very cold double cream. But I can’t have them, so I compromise. I sautee the apples in a little butter until they take a bit of colour. The blackberries I puree with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. Later in October, bramleys cooked down to a purple swathe with the last of the blackberries will have a fortified depth – perhaps a better filling for pies and crumbles in any case – but just now the discoveries and pert little berries yield, in close contact, a brilliant, spry fragrance.

Now I make a quick egg custard. Extravagant for one, you could say. But custard is worth the trouble, however great or small that might be. And besides, it’s one of those things, like mayonnaise or pastry or butter sauces, about which there is so much needless anxiety and fuss. I heat a generous wineglass of milk in a pan until I can’t dip my little finger in it any longer. In a bowl I beat the yolk of an egg very thoroughly, which I’ve carelessly separated so that there’s still a bit of white in there. I tip the milk to the egg, whisk, then then egg and milk back to the pan. I stir over a medium heat till, as steam begins to rise from its surface, it thickens properly, then decant it into a cold bowl. I add a couple of teaspoons of sugar and a generous splash of vanilla. Five minutes are rewarded with a pale primrose emulsion – viscous, ambrosial, nourishing – and absolutely the most fabulous thing (I use the word advisedly) to temper the youthful pep of the first discoveries and blackberries. I arrange the three things, custard, puree and sauteed apples as attractively as I can on a nice white plate, and dive in.

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achar, sambal ikin bilis, coconut, pandan

I’m off alcohol. It’s the latest thing I’ve decided is giving me my godawful paunchy stomach. Empty calories, apparently. Being off alcohol means lots of spice, heat and heady, sensuous eating. I look to southeast Asia. Cheese, lovely tomatoes, light little leafy salads, omelettes are out. None of it’s the same without a flinty glass of Muscadet. No more steaks because I’m not drinking claret or old Rhone. No more olives with an arctic glass of gin martini. I need to stop: to stop drinking; to stop writing about drinking or I WILL get out my cocktail shaker.

In are chilies: dry ones, little and fiery, large and wrinkly, dark and chocolatey; long, fresh red and green ones, shining and waxy; tiny birds eyes, devillish flecks. I’ve been out and stocked up on a litre of Squid Brand, packs of dried shrimp and anchovies, a foul murky block of shrimp paste. I’ve got soy, light and dark, and kecap manis. I’ve got kaffir lime, ginger, galangal, garlic, a great bunch lemongrass and a little pot of coriander I’m tending to on my gyp-room windowsill.

Today, I made achar, a piccalilli-like pickle flavoured with ginger and dyed with turmeric. I had it with coconut rice, some poached chicken, a few salad leaves and a brilliant Malaysian sambal made with shallots, chilies, tamarind, peanuts, and dried anchovies, fried until golden. Not for the squeamish, this one. There are quite discernible silver faces in your sambal. Nonetheless, it’s satisfyingly sweet, sour and hot, with a deeply salt, deeply marine crunch. I owe these two recipes (the achar and sambal) to Rick Stein’s really excellent last book Far Eastern Odyssey.

Yesterday I had chicken rice, for which there are so many recipes you can never hope to find the one. When I ask, the lady in the Chinese/Malaysian supermarket near the railway bridge on Mill Road insists that you fry ginger in oil – just oil – add the rice, coat in the oil, and then add the stock from cooking the chicken. Her way, she says, is the original way to make chicken rice. Other additions “ruin” it. Other recipes (Rick Stein again) suggest toasting the rice in rendered chicken fat and then simmering with stock and a knotted pandan leaf. I opt to simply poach my chicken (a couple of thighs as it’s just for me) and ladle off as much stock as I need onto basmati, being sure to take plenty of the schmulzy slick at the top of the pan as I do so. I add a bit of salt, a slice of ginger and a lime leaf and that’s it. I simmer it for ten minutes and leave it covered off the heat for another ten. For me this is the perfect rice for chicken rice, still light, but slightly greasy with chicken fat. All the rice and the chicken need, everyone agrees, is a pokey dipping sauce and some sliced cucumber. That’s chicken rice as we have it at home, anyway.

But I read in Rick Stein about pandan leaf being traditional, and not only in chicken rice but in the best-known national dishes of Malaysia and Indonesia, Sri Lanka too. It’s a flavour I’m new to, or think I am. I find pandan leaves quite easily in Mill Rd, though they’re pretty pricey. Pandan leaf extract is, I read, very good; certainly it would be for me as I don’t have a freezer and getting through bunches of fresh pandan leaves would be tricky before they all withered. So having rifled through the bewildering shelves for a while in the Chinese/Malaysian supermarket I find a little bottle, alongside vanilla and almond extract, labelled “AROMA PASTA PANDAN KOEPOE-KOEPOE”. I decide this must be it. The chicken rice lady, shaking the bottle at me at the checkout, demands of me my reason for wanting it. I say it’s to scent rice. “It turns it green.” “Green?” I assume she means it’s a paste made of the leaves that will add a few ferny flecks, or pond-like hue to my rice. I say, “Well, I’ll try it anyway.” She lifts the palms of her hands to me and says “OK,” in that way which means, “If you think you know better…”

When I get it back, I open the bottle and, indeed, it is food-colouring scented with pandan. I put it in the cupboard, abandon plans of pandan-chicken rice and shrug off a wasted £2. Though I do recognise the scent. It’s that slightly nutty, pine-like scent you know you know from rice, but hadn’t separated from the natural scent of jasmine or good basmati.

Today, I had some leftover coconut rice, which for a makeshift pudding I loosened with milk, sweetened with a lump of palm sugar and, in a flash of inspiration, scented (and dramatically coloured) with a couple of drops of my aroma pasta pandan koepoe-koepoe. Spread out on a white plate, I topped the rice with a fan of sliced mango. The fluorescent emerald rice and golden fruit strikes a note somewhere between cringe and kitsch that appeals to me greatly.

This simple pudding is all about the oozey swathe of rich rice, the tang and tarty perfume of mango.

Recipes to follow…

poached plums, cold yoghurt, strong black coffee

August hasn’t really got going yet, at least not for me. I went home last week to the apple farm where I spent half my childhood. We picked a few Discoveries which we knew weren’t quite ready: red-cheeked outside, but not quite yet blushing within – and with that slight stomach-aching chalkiness of under-ripe apples. At my godfather’s I picked some Victorias (though I think in hindsight they were actually Opals). They weren’t really ready yet either. It’s August when the Victorias and the Discoveries can be picked from the tree, eaten there and then, juicy and fragrant, a toothy-sweet smack of late summer.

They cooked up rather well though. The apples I sliced and made a quick little fruit tart with sweet pastry, plenty of last month’s apricot jam to glaze and a sprinkle of Swedish-produced cinnamon, which is somehow more ethereal than the English stuff. (You can get some at Totally Swedish on Crawford St or Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield St.) It goes terribly well with fragrant young apples. The plums I poached in a light syrup scented with vanilla and cardamom. Somehow their pallid skin and flesh lent a beautiful blush to the syrup. I had them for breakfast, just warm, with cold yoghurt and a cup of strong black coffee.