Well, how do I begin to describe my love for pesto? The smell of the basil, the slight grittiness of the parmesan, the smoky creaminess of the toasted pine nuts. It seems such a miraculous harmony of delicious ingredients. I would go as far to say it’s my favourite food. Savoury food that is – my favourite pudding is a whole other (lengthy) conversation.
I make pesto relatively regularly, and yet this is the first time I’ve actually measured the ingredients before throwing them in. Usually I just add things bit by bit until it tastes like it has the right balance – and I always need to make more than I need because all of these ‘tastes’ are, inevitably, large spoonfuls. This meal, of pasta with pesto and pancetta (or bacon), is both my default comfort food and my default quick, easy yet impressive dinner party food.
As I was taking photos of a dish so dear to my heart, I decided to trawl the local charity shops to find a suitable plate on which to show if off. I found this retro, fluted triumph at a very unassuming charity shop for a very reasonable £1.50. It’s the sort of plate that would have once been a proud member of a set to grace a dinner table back in the day, but now has been discarded in favour of more minimal, neutral patterns. However, it works perfectly for this dish, as the red patterning complements the bright green of the pesto.
The last few weeks have been oddly chaotic, given that I now don’t have a job. I have been frantically trying to fill my time – visiting friends in London and Brighton, and my Dad in Cornwall- so I don’t get too bored. I have also started looking for a place to live in Bristol, which involves rushing up at a moment’s notice to do a house viewing. I now understand that thing retired people say about not knowing how they ever had time to work.
On the odd day where I’ve not got anything else planned, I work on a blog post. I’ve really enjoyed taking more time over them. This one, for instance, was the product of an afternoon set aside specially to play with a new ‘prop’: a piece of slate. It’s not quite big enough to be a full background on its own, so I laid it on a chair, then arranged things on top. It’s surprisingly difficult to make pecans look like they have been casually scattered– whatever configuration I arranged them in seemed to look, well, arranged.
I am an avid granola fan, consuming it for breakfast almost every day. I pair it with some thick greek yoghurt, and sometimes some chopped banana. I keep expecting to get bored of it, but when I vary my breakfast by having toast, a little part of me wishes I were eating granola. So I thought it was high time I tried making some. There are no rules here – feel free to add any combination of nuts and seeds that you fancy. The maple syrup can be substituted for something else syrupy, such as honey, agave syrup, golden syrup or date syrup (actually, I might try that one next time..).
I was sent a link recently to a series of images where the photographer had recreated meals from all their favourite books. This got me thinking about books that I had read and remembered particular things that the characters ate, or meals that were vividly described. From childhood, I can recall exactly the pie that was eaten by Danny in Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, wrapped in greaseproof paper, and containing whole eggs in amongst the filling.
I have just finished reading The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. In this book, two worlds run side by side. In one of them, the two characters seem to incessantly eat popcorn. There are many passages devoted to their choice of topping, how they cook it, and so on for a surprisingly long time. When I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about popcorn. So I decided to make some.
I experimented with both a savoury and a sweet topping, these being smoked paprika, and cinnamon and sugar. There are many others you could use – some options I remember from the book are parmesan, thai five spice powder, and mixed herbs. There is a certain amazement in these dry yellow things suddenly magically transforming into the stuff you get at the cinema. It took me a few tries to get the temperature just right, as the oil can’t be too hot as it will burn the kernels, but it needs to be hot enough to make them pop.
I have been going slightly quince crazy over the last few weeks. I had a surreptitious, under-the-counter deal with the greengrocer for a 4kg crate of quinces. Not that I really wanted that many, but they seem to only come in such a quantity, and she was confident that, were I to only take half, the rest wouldn’t sell. No one really knows what to do with the cumbersome fruits that look like a cross between an apple and a pear on steroids. You can’t eat them raw, and I would be dubious to their appeal prepared in any way other than in a jelly or a paste.
This is not actually cheese. It is nothing like cheese. Hence the need for the inverted commas in the title- and my insistence on using air quotes whenever I tell people about it. It’s actually a paste made out of quinces and sugar, which sets firm enough to hold its shape. You eat it with cheese- so why it’s also known as a ‘cheese’ is slightly baffling. The Spanish name is membrillo, which doesn’t enlighten us any more, unless you’re Spanish.
Quinces have a lovely autumnal taste to them, a bit like a sweet pear. This ‘cheese’ is lovely sliced in very thin slivers as part of a cheeseboard, and is particularly good with hard goats’ cheese. It is also nice, as I discovered having surplus, on toast, balanced on top of some crunchy peanut butter. You’ll need some sort of mould for the paste – I used silicone cupcake cases, and the jelly popped satisfyingly out of them when it was set. But any sort of ramekins or small dishes would work well too.
At the risk of sounding very middle class, I have to confess that we have a gardener. A gardener who grows broad beans, strawberries and tomatoes in large numbers. Depending on the time of year, he brings over bucketfuls of whichever one he has surplus. So now we are in to tomato season, albeit a polytunnel-induced one.
The wonderful little red and yellow cherry tomatoes are amazingly sweet and always disappear quickly. They have the same addictive qualities as grapes – that is, they are sweet, juicy and there are lots of them. As lovely as they are fresh, I wanted some way of making them last for longer.
So as I was pondering (a terribly middle class word) what to do with them, I stumbled upon a recipe for drying tomatoes in the oven. Even though oven-dried tomatoes are the less poetic cousin to sun-dried tomatoes, I hope the effect will be the same.
I found this recipe in a wonderful cookbook called Salt, Sugar, Smoke by Diana Henry, all about preserving fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. This recipe was in the ‘under oil’ chapter, along with such mouthwatering things as spiced feta in olive oil and Persian marinated olives. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly, as I am using cherry tomatoes, and I opted to keep the tomatoes in just oil, rather than oil and vinegar, as I didn’t think (correctly) that they would stick around for four weeks.
The other day a customer came into the café accompanied by a rather large marrow. When I enquired as to what prompted his coming into the café with said vegetable, he replied that one of the nearby residents was giving them away for free, in desperate attempt to get rid of her bountiful harvest.
When I think of a marrow glut, the word that comes to mind is ‘chutney’. Marrow chutney seems like the last resort, when you’ve exhausted all the stuffing and pretending they’re courgettes that you can. The only option remaining is years upon years of marrow chutney with every meal.
With the troublesome connotations of chutney, I decided to call this ‘relish’. The word alludes to a spontaneous creation, and is more satisfying to say. Relish can be eaten straight away, rather than leaving to mature for months, which suits impatient people like myself. This recipe uses balsamic vinegar, which is one of my favourite things, as it goes well with the red onions. This relish works well with goats’ cheese, in a burger, with cheese on toast, or just eaten right out of the jar (and I’m speaking from experience).
I frequently like to play a game with myself along the lines of desert-island discs called desert-island meals. Disregarding all notions of nutrition/what would help you survive on said island, fresh pasta would have to be on the list (along with pesto, chocolate mousse, and some sort of salad to keep Mum happy). Realistically, it would be the last thing I would want to eat if being marooned on an island did actually happen. Not to mention the unlikelihood of having a convenient pasta maker to hand. But, logistics aside, it really is something that I would be happy to eat until the end of my days.
Fresh pasta is a different thing entirely from dried pasta. Yes, it is a bit of an effort to make – the mixing, kneading, resting, rolling takes time – but I’m always convinced that it’s worth it in the end. A pasta maker is pretty much a necessity to get the dough thin enough – I tried it once with just a rolling pin, and it was disappointingly thick and chewy. You need reinforcements in the form of willing volunteers to help coax the pasta through the rollers. I had three helpers to hold the ever-lengthening sheet of dough. If you are Italian, maybe you can do it single-handedly, but this would be quite a feat.
I sometimes serve the pasta with homemade pesto, but it really doesn’t need much embellishment. This time I went for parmesan, olive oil, salt, pepper and a few basil leaves. A green salad was meant to be an accompaniment, but having got so involved with making the pasta I completely forgot about it, so we had a salad course afterwards.