Salad for one

It’s been a while since I posted, mainly thanks to the onset of pre-Christmas baking madness. More of this in a forthcoming post.

Meanwhile here’s a quick post on a somewhat peculiar salad. I started out thinking, ‘Mmm… avocado and spinach,’ then added some other ingredients. It  may not be to everyone’s taste, hence ‘salad for one’, but I enjoyed it. It’s savoury, warming and fresh all at the same time and feels like a good antidote to too many late nights baking, too many of those mince pies I eat out of politeness at work, and too much winter.

Salad for one
Serves one

150g baby spinach
1/4 cucumber
1 ripe avocado
2 cooked beetroots
1/4 jar anchovies
25g walnut pieces
olive oil
sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
a shake of Tabasco

Wash and slice the cucumber into half or quarter-circles. Peel and chop the avocado into cubes. Cut the beetroot into sticks or chunks. Cut the anchovies into the smallest pieces you can. Mix all this up with the walnuts in your salad bowl. Season with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and Tabasco.

Leave the salad on the side till all the ingredients are room temperature and have had time to get to know each other.


Spinach, walnut, avocado, beetroot, cucumber, anchovy salad

It’s ready when all the ingredients are a little bit purple


Open-arse tart

This is a sad story. It was forged in ardent romantic illusion and quenched – this very evening – in the cold mud of disappointment. There will be a flutter of redemption and solace at the end, but not enough to match the initial high hopes. I was in love with something I had never seen or touched. I had heard great things, of its soft scent, its delicious flavour, its near magical powers to transform from something hard, cold and green to tender, giving, open flesh almost in the blink of an eye. The object of my imaginary desires was the medlar.

Medlar blossom

Let’s start with a pretty picture of medlar blossom to represent the dream.

My appetite was whetted by occasional references on Gardeners’ Question Time and a short account of the fruit in Andrew Dalby’s excellent The Shakespeare Cookbook. The attractive and intriguing traits of the medlar are these. It does not ripen like ordinary fruit – or at least it does, but it’s not ready to eat until it’s rotted, or more properly ‘bletted’. It is like an apple in miniature, arranged around five pips, but while these are larger than apple pips, the fruit is smaller. But best of all, it sounds like a fruit with a sense of fun and humour, for it was known, in the sixteenth century as an ‘open-arse’. If you look at it from a certain angle you can see what those jolly Elizabethans meant.

medlar open arse

This is the bottom of the fruit

My interest in the medlar was not easy to satisfy. It’s not for sale in shops. But then, at the beginning of this month, it was for sale at the farmers’ market, so I bought a punnet and took it home. I laid the little greeny-brown fruits out on the dining table and waited for them to blet. And waited. And waited. Not only did they take ages to blet, they did it one at a time. About one a day. It has taken almost three weeks for the whole lot to reach the edible stage. What happens is the firm apple-like greeny-white flesh turns a soft dark brown.

Medlars bletting

Medlars stubbornly waiting to blet

This was my first indication that the medlar might be hard to love but there were two redeeming features. The bletted fruit had delicately spotted skin and smelt exactly like an orchard on a damp morning, a smell I happen to like.

This evening I set to making a bastardised version of the medlar tart in The Shakespeare Cookbook. And this led to by second disappointment. The medlar did not give its flesh up easily. Maybe my medlars were smaller or more bletted than the ones Andrew Dalby had in mind. His suggested method was to “cut the medlars in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a teaspoon”. I ended up with a tiresome mixture of pulp, pips and skin on my hand and not much in the bowl. For me, grumpy squeezing and picking out the pips worked best in the end.

Will there be a third disappointment? Will the medlar be as fragrant and delightful to eat as they all promised… Find out in a few short lines after the recipe:

225g plain flour
grated zest of ½ lemon
tiny pinch of salt
110g unsalted butter
½ tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp cold water

at least a dozen bletted medlars*
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2cm3 fresh ginger
150ml whipping cream1 egg, separated
1 tsp cinnamon
* If you don’t have medlars, and you probably don’t, you could try replacing them with a large peeled and grated Bramley apple.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (reduce for a fan oven). Butter a tart or flan case.

In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, salt and lemon zest. Lightly rub in the butter. When you reach the rough breadcrumb stage stir in the sugar. Add the water one tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork until the crumbs start to bind. Give them a quick squeeze to bring it all together as pastry. Press this into the tart case, prick the base all over with a fork, and bake for twenty minutes.

Pricked tart case

When it’s done remove it from the oven and turn the heat down 20°.

Meanwhile, get the pulp out of those medlars any way you can. Put it in a saucepan with the brown sugar and grate in the ginger. Heat gently and stir till this mixture is smooth. Add the cream and heat again until it’s hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolk and stir it in. Keep heating and stirring until the mixture thickens.

Pour this custardy mix into the cooked flan case. Bake for another fifteen minutes.

tart baked but not covered

Baked filling

I felt uncomfortable with the nakedness of my tart so I whipped up the egg white with a spoonful of caster sugar to make a soft topping. Spread this on and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Tart with meringue topping

Less of an open-arse, more of a full moon

Tasting notes: Actually not bad. I’d cook it again if somebody brought the medlars round to my house ready-bletted and got the pulp out for me.

Soul cakes: food for the quick and the dead

If you like beer, golden syrup and releasing tormented souls from Purgatory you’ll love soul cakes.

People still make soul cakes in Britain today but they used to make them with a purpose. In Merry England – that is the days before Henry VIII deprived us of all the best architecture and fun superstitions by falling out with the Pope – they were set out on the evening of 1 November with a glass of ale or wine in remembrance of the souls of the dead. The following day, All Souls Day, children, poor people and mummers (the medieval version of the village amateur dramatic society) went round begging for the uneaten cakes, singing or chanting:

Soul, soul, a soul cake! I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul and three for Him who made us all.

The tradition was that every cake eaten released a soul from Purgatory. Presumably giving it away to those who came asking for it was also good for the soul of the ‘good missus’ who gave it away. And presumably eating it was a pleasure for those who ate it and good for their souls too because they were helping a soul out of Purgatory. That’s some powerful cake.

There are alternative names for soul cakes. I’ve seen them referred to as Thor’s cakes which sounds very thrillingly pagan, but as the big Norse celebrations of Thor were held in midwinter not the start of winter this is probably a fanciful mishearing of harcakes, a name still used in Lancashire today. Potter fans may wonder if JK was thinking of harcakes when she came up with the term ‘horcrux’, a place for keeping little bits of soul.

There are a variety of recipes floating around the internet for soul cakes. The common ingredients are spice and butter. Some are made with oats, others with flour. Some are made with golden syrup, others with sugar. After I’d made these I realised honey would have been a much more likely sweetener for medieval bakers. Something to try next time.

This somewhat flapjacky recipe (based on one I found at includes beer – a good dark flavour to offset the sweetness and spice, and a reminder of the drink set out for the souls of the dead.

60g unsalted butter (at room temperature, not straight from the fridge)
500g oatmeal
350 ml golden syrup
2tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
1 egg, beaten
200ml dark ale (maybe a bit more)

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a shallow baking tray and line it with baking parchment.

Rub the butter into the oatmeal. Unlike rubbing butter into flour this does not result in something that looks like fine breadcrumbs, rather something that looks and feels a lot like wet sand. Sprinkle in the spice and add the syrup. Stir vigorously to get the syrup evenly distributed. Finally add the beaten egg and beer and stir vigorously again until you have an even, thick batter. Pour this into your baking tray and stick it in the oven.

After forty-five minutes take the tray out and use a table knife to score lines horizontally and vertically across the cake about 5cm apart.

soul cake or harcake

The whole soul cake

Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove and cool for at least half an hour before turning out of the tray. When the cake has completely cooled cut it into small squares. If you have your lines nicely spaced you will end up with a cross over each square – the sign of food destined to be given away as alms.

Store the pieces for 3 days or longer in an airtight tin to let the flavours settle and combine. If you make it today it will just be ready in time for All Souls’ Day on Friday

soul cake

Soul-sized bites.

Vegan surprise

The surprise was more exciting for me than it is likely to be for you, so I’ll spill it straight away: to my absolute astonishment and entirely by accident I have just cooked, eaten and enjoyed an entirely vegan dinner. No butter, no bacon, not even a bit of egg.* What a revelation.

The combination of ingredients was determined by:

1) the fact I had a strange craving for pak choi at lunchtime today and bought two in the covered market

2) things I already had in the cupboard

Serves 1 greedy person

100g basmati rice
half a vegetable stock cube [I was cooking for myself, it was late and I was hungry. Under these circumstances shortcuts are allowed.]

sunflower oil [I would have used olive if I hadn’t run out.]
about 80g shelled unsalted pistachios
1 teaspoon dried crushed chili [or less if you are of a delicate disposition]
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 small pak choi
1 clove of garlic
mirin [don’t really understand what this is but it makes everything taste better]

Put the rice on to cook with the stock cube crumbled in. I do it lid on, with twice as much water by volume as rice. All the water gets absorbed by the rice so when it’s done you don’t have to faff around with draining it.

If you have a pestle and mortar give the nuts a gentle bashing to break them up into halves and quarters. If not bundle them up in a tea towel and batter them with a rolling pin.

Meanwhile put 1-2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan and heat it up to medium-hot.

Wash and chop the pak choi. Cut away and reserve the greens. Cut the white parts into two or three pieces. Crush the garlic.

Put the nuts, chili and mustard seeds into the pan. Stir them round till they’re hot and coated with oil but not burning.

Add the whites of the pak choi. Cook for about three minutes, until the whites are cooked.

Stir in the greens and garlic and cook for another two minutes or so.

When the pak choi’s done stir in the cooked rice. Add a few splashes of magic mirin and eat. Probably on the sofa in front of the television.

pak choi rice garlic mustard seed crushed chile garlic pistachios

It’s not a small bowl, it’s a big fork

If you love her… say it with oysters

When you’re planning, or hoping, to spend the night with someone, do you also plan breakfast?

Roy does. Roy works at Whitstable fish market, shucking oysters for greedy tourists like me. I met him last summer when a friend and I were at the market buying crab sandwiches. The sandwiches were sold from a utilitarian glazed counter by a stone-faced woman in a gingham overall and a paper hat. Roy’s stall opposite was a brightly painted wooden cart topped with an elaborate display of ice, lemons and shellfish. Roy himself was in an apron and baseball cap (and T-shirt and trousers) and had a big grin. We were drawn in.

It was July and I asked Roy about the rule that says “Never eat oysters if there isn’t an R in the name of the month”. According to him when it comes to Irish oysters the rule doesn’t really apply. Also according to him the famous Whitstable oysters are pitifully small and nothing special. So we ordered an oyster chaser to the crab sandwiches.

While Roy shucked the oysters – without looking at the oysters or the knife – he shared a surprising amount of information. He grew up in London. He had worked in the hotel industry for forty years. This was the first time in his life he had lived by the sea. He had retired but gone back to work because he was bored. And this was the best breakfast he knew for impressing a ‘lady’:

Roy’s oyster breakfast
Serves 2

fresh (i.e. baked that morning) baguette
1 dozen fresh oysters

Cut chunks of bread and spread with butter.

Cut the lemon into wedges.

Shuck the oysters.

Put a small glass of port into each of two pint glasses. Fill to the brim with Guinness.

Arrange bread, oysters and Guinnes on a tray and eat in bed.

If anyone served me this breakfast I would be seriously impressed. Quite apart from the effort it would take to get all the ingredients together if you didn’t happen to be a professional oyster shucker who lives down the road from a good French bakery, and apart from the fact it would taste good and be fun to eat, it has, to me, a really attractive combination of qualities: simple sophistication (oysters!) contrasted with outrageously earthy hedonism (Guinness and port! for breakfast!). I suspect Roy made a few ladies very happy in his youth. Perhaps he still does. Good on him.

oyster shells

Public Health Announcement: borscht is good for you

The part of me that is not English or Hungarian is Ukrainian. This post seems a necessary counter-balance to the Hungarian salami post.

I have always had a nagging feeling that I couldn’t properly claim Ukrainian heritage unless I could make borsch, and this week I finally did it.

I am giving the recipe exactly as I found it in Savella Stechishin’s excellent Traditional Ukrainian Cookery. I have no qualms about copying it out word for word as the book has been out of print for some time. If you can get a second-hand one (and it will cost you a finger and a toe if not an arm and a leg) I strongly recommend it. Stechishin was born in the Ukraine but emigrated to Canada, which is why you will find North American spellings below.

My tips:

  • I used pork ribs for the ‘soup meat’ – they are fun to fish out and gnaw on.
  • Don’t leave out the garlic.
  • Don’t bother with the flour.
  • Don’t worry about the beet kvas bit – it’s a sour liquid made from fermented beetroots which is way beyond the call of duty.
  • Do add the lemon juice, or alternatively a couple of spoonfuls of the pickling liquid from some dill pickled cucumbers.
  • Be generous with the soured cream.

Borsch is stuffed with healthy vegetables, a beautiful colour and tastes like nothing  in the Western European repertoire. It will put a spring in your step. Enjoy.

“Standard Borsch

This standard recipe for borsch is the one most commonly used with slight variations to suit one’s taste. It was customary for grandmother to cut the beets and other root vegetables into very thin strips. She preferred them that way. But they may also be grated in long shreds on a coarse grater with no sacrifice of quality to the finished product. For a well-flavoured borsch, it is best to use some fresh lean pork and a small piece of any smoked pork along with the soup meat of beef. Each of them contributes its own specific flavor and adds to the richness of the stock.

1 1/2 pounds soup meat with bone
10 to 12 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium beets, cut in thin strips
1 small carrot, cut in thin strips
1 medium potato, diced
1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup diced string beans or cooked white beans
2 to 3 cup shredded cabbage
3/4 cup strained tomatoes or tomato juice
1/2 clove garlic, crushed, if desired
1 tablespoon flour
beet kvas or lemon juice
salt and pepper
chopped dill
1/2 cup sour cream

Cover the meat with the cold water, add the salt, bring slowly to the boiling point, then skim. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Add the onion and beets; cook 10 to 15 minutes for until the beets are almost done. If young beets are used, cook them together with the other vegetables. Add the carrot, potato, celery, and string beans; continue cooking for about 10 minutes. When cooked white beans are used, they should be added after the cabbage is cooked to retain their white color. Finally put in the cabbage and cook until it is tender. Do not overcook. Stir in the tomatoes or tomato juice and the crushed garlic, if it is used. Blend the flour with 3 tablespoons of cold water, spoon into it some soup liquid, and then stir into the borsch. If a thickened borsch is not desired, omit the flour. Add a small quantity of the beet kvas or lemon juice or any other mild acid commonly used in borsch, taking care not to use too much. A good borsch should be pleasantly tart but not sour. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and bring to the boiling point. Flavor it with the chopped dill. When ready to serve, add some thick sour cream or rich sweet cream. The amount of cream will depend on personal taste. It may also be served without cream. Some prefer to put the cream into each serving. This is the custom in central Ukraine. When the borsch is to be reheated the next day, do not add any cream. It tastes better when the cream is added just before serving.”

Ukrainian Borsch

The Hungarian Mangalica pig: a love-eat relationship

Though brought up in England I am genetically 75% Eastern European and thus have an innate love of pork. Shopping for ham the other day my eye was drawn instead to a rack of cured sausages. And then to the red-white-and-green Pick logo on a Mangalica Hungarian Paprika Sausage at the back. I bought it, of course.

Pick label

Mangalica Paprika Sausage

It was completely delicious but not the sausage I have always associated with Pick.

Every year throughout my childhood, just before Christmas my Hungarian great-grandmother sent my family a case of red wine, several boxes of chocolate, and one large Pick salami. My father gorged happily on the chocolate. The wine was saved for visitors. The salami, for my sister, my mother, the dachshunds and I, was an object of desire.

Hungarian winter salami

The salami was over a metre long. It came wrapped in cellophane, boldly decorated with the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag. Stapled at the top was a loop of sturdy string and this was used to hang the salami, reverently, on one of the higher hooks on the dresser. Here it could be admired by everyone at the dining table, and the dogs, who lay gazing up at it with wide, moist eyes.

Unwrapping and first tasting usually took place in the week before Christmas, on a day when my mother had brought home poppy seed rolls. We sat around the table with rolls broken and thickly buttered. I stood on a chair, brought the salami down from its hook and laid it on the sacrificial table alongside a large wooden board and a sharp knife. At this point there was some debate between my sister and me over the unwrapping of the cellophane. She favoured removing it in strips to preserve the festive colours for as long as possible. I, guided by a wholly imaginary mental image of a Hungarian farmhouse kitchen, felt it would be more correct to remove the cellophane altogether. Usually my mother tore it off while we were still discussing it.

Now came the first slice, through the dusty papery skin, and into the deep red meat, evenly flecked with clean white fat. This slice was important. It was too thick to put on bread and included the twisted chewy end. It was a desirable prize and one my sister and I argued over. The only consolation for the loser was that if they kept their wits about them they would have a strong claim on the other end, a metre and roughly a fortnight away. The first slice, whether it was the end slice or not, was an intense experience. When you slice salami yourself you can’t help creating a slice ten or even twenty times the thickness of a supermarket slice. Our slices were so thick and chewy that they induced a contemplative state. This was always one of the most peaceful moments in the run-up to Christmas.

Unwrapping never took place at a regular mealtime. It could happen after a particularly long dog walk, a tiresome shopping trip, or on a Saturday morning for ‘second breakfast’. Throughout the life of the salami we continued to eat it in this ad hoc fashion. At that time our living room was on the first floor, so my sister or I would go on mad gallops downstairs during TV ad breaks to fulfil each other’s orders: “one piece of toast with butter and two slices”, “two pieces of toast with no butter and three slices”, or “just some slices, four or six, with the paper left on”. I think the reason the salami never became part of regular meal-times was that it just tasted too good. Nothing really goes with it, or to put it another way, there’s almost nothing you can eat with it that improves the flavour*. Bread has some practical advantages though. Chewy rolls and butter slow you down, and toast gently warms the salami, softening the fat and releasing more flavour.

The Hungarian name for this particular style of salami is téliszalámi, meaning ‘winter salami’. This is because the salami was traditionally cold-cured – that is hung in cold air while being gently smoked. The filling is finely chopped Mangalica meat and fat mixed with white pepper, allspice and garlic. What my sister and I thought of as ‘the paper’ is actually sausage casing which grows a white, powdery mould during the curing process. The fact you ideally make this salami in winter when the air is cool gives a new resonance to the fact we were given it as a Christmas present. Perhaps my great-grandmother was continuing a family tradition.

Thanks to the label on the sausage that caught my eye at the supermarket I have now realised it wasn’t just the curing and flavouring of the salami that made it good, so much as the meat (and fat) itself. The pig that went into the sausage and the winter salami was a “curly haired Mangalica pig”. The label went on to explain that “there are relatively few registered Mangalica livestock which means a limited number of these special sausages are produced”. I spent twenty minutes this morning (over breakfast of thickly-sliced paprika sausage on toast) looking up the Mangalica online, and to my horror and delight found out that this is not only a very delicious animal but also very charming. I am a committed meat-eater – I think meat-eating is human nature, or to put it another way something most people will do when they get the chance and can afford it – but this animal made me question my position for a few minutes at least.

They have curly woolly coats:

Lovely curls

They have intelligent, cheerful faces:

Louie the eunuch

They really love mud:

Mangalica (Mangalitza) pigs

The piglets can be spotted:

Spotted piglet

Or, like wild boar piglets, even striped:

Redhead baby piggy

Of course, the Mangalica would not exist if pork-loving Hungarians had not bred it in the first place. That spotty boar-like piglet coat made me wonder if they might be quite an ancient breed. The answer is yes and no. The wild boar is not a very distant ancestor of the Mangalica but it is a grandparent, or great-grandparent rather than a parent.

Until the nineteenth century Hungarian pigs lived much like their wild boar ancestors. They ranged semi-wild and semi-free over the unimproved pasture, forests and marshes of the great Hungarian plain and up into the Carpathians, chomping on undergrowth, acorns and beech mast until they were two years old.

Fotothek df tg 0007816 Jagdwesen ^ Jagd ^ Schwein

At this point they were rounded up and brought back to the farm to be slaughtered. The meat was free-range and organic, and no doubt tasty but also tough and lean. There was a market for a fattier, faster-growing pig, more suited to curing and sausage-making and the royal Archduke József set out to create one at his Kisjenõ estate. József crossed the tough and hardy native Bakonyi (I don’t speak Hungarian but that name is surely no coincidence) and Szalontai pigs with a lardier Serbian breed called the Sumadija.

The resulting Mangalica was a pig with a prodigious capacity for putting on fat. Mangalicas were grazed outdoors on grass and stubble for about a year, then put on an intensive diet of barley and maize. Fed in this way, by the time they were two years old and ready to be slaughtered they could weigh up to 200kg. That’s a lot of lard. One of the biggest fattening farms was in Szeged, and it was there, with the help of migrant workers from Italy that the Pick salami-making business was set up in 1869. The Mangalica was first choice for salami-making for the next sixty years at least.

But times and tastes change and in the 1950s Mangalica numbers dropped. I haven’t been able to find a clear explanation of this. Maybe more alternative fats to lard became available. Maybe Mangalica pigs didn’t do as well in collective farms as other breeds. Or maybe people were more interested in obtaining fresh meat than preserved, lard-rich meat. But whatever the reason for the decline there is no need to panic – the Mangalica is on the rise again. It has been imported to the US and the UK to be kept as a pet and as livestock but more importantly it’s having a Hungarian renaissance which supplies the Pick factory and smaller producers too.

I’m strongly considering attending next February’s Mangalica Festival in Budapest, where you can see prize-winning pigs, buy gigantic pork steaks from outdoor barbecues and buy hundreds of different salamis . While I’m there I might also pop to the Pick Museum at Szeged. But that will all have to wait for next year. This year I will mostly be eating thick slices of salami on buttered toast and hardening my heart against the delightful Mangalica pig.

NOTE: the information about the history of the Mangalica comes from an entertaining, informative and charmingly translated article by Dr. Radnóczi László. Read it here.

* While nothing goes with winter salami like another slice of winter salami, this is a great thing to do with the paprika sausage:

Paprika sausage and eggs

For two people:

2 cooked cold potatoes, in small cubes
half a paprika sausage, cut into semi-circles
4 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced

Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a medium-sized frying pan. When it’s gently bubbling drop in the potato and sausage. Stir occasionally until the potato is hot and the fat in the sausage is starting to melt. Crack in the eggs. Add salt and pepper. Stir the eggs very gently, even half-heartedly (think of this as stirred eggs rather than scrambled) until the eggs are just barely cooked. Eat immediately with the sliced tomatoes and lots of strong coffee. A breakfast fit for an Archduke.