It’s 4.30pm on Saturday. Earlier, we waved goodbye to all our children and grandchildren after a truly brilliant week together. The first time we’ve gathered as a full group in two years.
Beds stripped, sheets and towels on the washing conveyor belt, broken Lego binned and forgotten drawings and toys gathered up. However, our true focus is the final prep for our annual Open Garden day – it’s on Sunday: tomorrow.
There are 17 gardens around Berwick opening to raise funds to support the beautifying and upkeep of our local parks here. It’s a great occasion – all the more so because we couldn’t do it last year – full of socialising and gardening knowledge-sharing.
I get a text. Not a Love Island text calling me to the firepit – although, when I read it, it feels a bit like we’re about to go up in smoke. We’ve been exposed to coronavirus. We’re back home from the local walk-through PCR testing station by 5.30pm. I’m beginning to feel a bit coldy and achy. The Husband says he’s fine, but I think that sniff of his is suspicious.
We have cakes defrosting, the makings of 40 bacon rolls, a friend’s jam and more cakes arriving on the Sunday morning. The garden’s not perfect (it’s been a bit neglected by us and rampaged by the grandchildren in the very best of ways!) but it’s still looking good. But what if we have coronavirus?
I take the decision to pull out of Open Gardens.
Our PCR tests come back positive on Sunday morning. We take stock of the mountain of cakes and bacon. We slump in front of the telly all day, catching up on Love Island, watching people stroll past our window in the sunshine clutching Open Gardens trail maps. We’re groggy, fluey and lethargic – and a tad sorry for ourselves. We eat cake and bacon rolls.
By Tuesday I’m not sure I can eat another piece of cake or another bacon roll (The Husband’s not so sure!). I flick listlessly through Guardian Feast Issue No.188, even though I honestly cba to keep up with my ridiculous plan to cook at least one recipe from each issue of Feast during 2021.
However Meera Sodha – angel Meera – catches my eye with her fennel and courgette pistou soup. It looks so green and healing. Just thinking about spooning it into my body makes me feel better. Plus I have courgettes growing in the garden and a total abundance of basil. Okay, so we don’t have fennel. And we can’t nip out and get any. I never quite got round to sorting home delivery from any of our local supermarkets. At the beginning of Lockdown 1 it was impossible to register, let alone place an actual order, so I gave up. I find some sad celery in the bottom of the fridge and fennel seeds in the cupboard which I decide will do.
I use our ‘compost bag’ plus a shrivelled carrot to make veg stock. I’m not going to say that my compromises delivered the perfect solution. Fennel is clearly a signature ingredient in this soup. Hey-ho – as I so often say – sometimes you just have to use what’s on offer.
Whatever I lacked in my store cupboard, Meera’s soup made up for in healing benevolence. The perfect food for feeding the coronavirus-ridden body and soothing the angst-ridden soul. As we slurped it down, The Husband and I gave grateful thanks that we are both double vaxed and that we are not suffering the full and awful impact of the illness that so many around the world have had to endure.
I’m celebrating my love of the food columns and supplements in The Guardian by trying to cook at least one recipe from each issue of Guardian Feast in 2021. Find out a bit more about that here.
I tackled three recipes from Guardian Feast Issue No.158: Rachel Roddy’s citrusy Budini di riso fiorentini (little rice pudding tarts), Thomasina Miers’ lip-smacking Savoy cabbage and fennel sausage ‘lasagne’, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s rich and dreamy Macaroni with yoghurt and spicy lamb. Read on to find out how I got on and which recipes hit the spot. Link to original recipes at the end of the post.
I’ve never been a great one for making pastry. It does, however, remind me of my lovely mum. When we were little, she always seemed to be wearing an apron dusted with flour and making pastry of some sort for something: steak and kidney pie, sausage rolls, apple pie, jam tarts. Let’s face it, back in the 60s pastry was a good cheap filler.
My participation in Mum’s very own Great British Bake Off was limited. Once I’d graduated from turning pastry offcuts into grey bobbly blobs, carefully arranged on a tray and baked in the oven (and always semi raw in the middle when they came out), I was allowed to rub the fat into the flour. I found it tedious. Mum always had to redo my rubbing. I still leave a lump of butter or six – nuggets of gold – in my bowl of ‘moist sand’.
Reading Rachel’s wonderful build up to the recipe for little rice pudding tarts gives me a false sense of peace and security. Additionally, these little tarts give me a warm glow as they remind me of pastel de nata – those delicious Portuguese tarts which I’ve enjoyed cooking with my youngest daughter.
But it was time to stop procrastinating and get on with the recipe. I feel the tension build: I can’t do pastry, there’s lots of stages to this and I’ll get it in a muddle. I breathe deep and think of my friend Pauline Beaumont, author of Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread. Pauline advocates that baking is a stress buster and if approached mindfully can help us cope with the setbacks and imperfectness of life. My tendency is to try to ‘get ahead’ with recipes, but I determine to follow Rachel precisely. No running around with pastry daggings hanging off my hands grabbing forgotten items – I get all the ingredients out upfront and lay them out neatly.
Yes, the pudding rice went out of date in 2018 and there’s not quite enough but… I hum a happy tune, use the rice anyway and top it up with arborio – fine, right? One other little thing, Billy the fruit and veg man at Berwick’s depleted Saturday market has only Seville oranges. I understand there’s just a tiny window to make marmalade from this fruit but (hangs head) I’ve never really engaged. But Seville orange instead of ordinary and sweet sherry instead of vino santo – all good, yes?
Rice pudding tarts a la Jackie – I rather like the art-deco look of my blind-baked pastry cases
As you’ll note from the pictures above, I did blind bake the buttery sweet pastry. Not altogether successfully. Ah, well, ‘we move’ as my youngest daughter has taken to saying. The final result was pretty good, I think. The daughters felt the rice was a bit al dente (maybe to do with the date – I certainly cooked it for what felt like forever). I was rather partial to the effect of the Seville orange – a bit like a citrus version of the famous numbing Szechuan peppercorn. The Husband declared the pastry ‘like shortbread biscuits’. Perhaps pastry and I will eventually reach a truce.
Next up, Thomasina Miers’ savoy cabbage and fennel sausage ‘lasagne’. This turned out to be a delicious and pretty easy supper. It feels as if it’s going to take ages with the blanching of individual cabbage leaves and so forth but all very manageable. I’m not used to tipping milk along with the tomatoes into a meaty sauce, so that was a bit of a revelation. I did double up as suggested by Thomasina. In these lockdown days, the four of us also eat lunch together, so it’s handy to over-cater the night before.
As you’ll see from the pics, my ‘lasagne’ was a lot sloppier than Thomasina’s, but that was probably my use of a tin of lentils from my cupboard. I assume Thomasina used dried lentils in the original (note to recipe writers – it’s useful to know these things). We all enjoyed the zing of the fennel seeds and were surprised at how effective cabbage leaves are as a sub for pasta. I used goats cheese I had in stock instead of ricotta – I can only get ricotta from the supermarket and it’s not supermarket week. Definitely on my list as a go-to easy-ish supper dish. However, the daughters declared that Yotam’s recipe (see below) trumped Thomasina’s.
My take on Thomasina Miers’ ‘lasagne’ made with cabbage leaves, sausages and fennel.
And, finally, Yotam’s macaroni with yoghurt and spicy lamb – probably the overall favourite of the week in a strong selection. It was interesting to make two recipes involving layering and dairy in the meat sauces (this one and Thomasina’s above) – and creating such different effects. I used fischiotti pasta (because that’s what we had) not sedanini – but any tuby pasta’s good, I think. Also I had no fresh coriander but had picked up a bag of frozen last time I was in our nearest food shop – Iceland – it worked fine.
The eldest daughter made positive murmurings about the ‘flavour profile’ of Yotam’s robust comfort dish and also enjoyed the texture the pine nuts delivered. It was quite a faff to make – so many largish pots crammed on the cooker at once – and I was glad it was a Friday night rather than a weekday ordinaire. And, just one thing, Yotam: ‘roughly grated tomatoes’? I mean, I did grate a couple and put the skins to one side (see pic below) but then I thought: dang it, I’ve got the processor out to finely chop the veg (which works a dream, by the way!) might as well make the most of it. So, in the tomatoes went, skins and all. It made the getting out, washing up and putting away of the processor worthwhile.