Potatoes for cold toes

Over the last week or so there has been snow in England. We English are well aware that it is not ‘real’ snow – not like American snow, Canadian snow, Alpine snow or Russian snow. It is not deep enough to bring the Trans-Siberian Express to a creaking halt, bright white enough to send a polar explorer mad or blind, or make a grizzly bear think twice about popping out for a bite to eat. Nonetheless, much like all the other snow it is somewhat cold.

As the proud owner of an energetic lurcher I do not get to stay in when it snows. It’s wellies on and up the field for the same walk as normal – only with colder toes.

zephyr

Due to an administrative error my wellies have steel toe-caps. In ordinary damp, muddy weather this is unfortunate because the toe-caps are heavy and when combined with a good coating of mud on each boot it can become quite difficult to walk. I have on occasion ground to a halt in the middle of a particularly muddy field, weighed down by the accumulation of mud. In winter weather the steel toe-caps are a disaster because they radiate the heat of my toes out of my boots and into the snow. I’ve tried successively warmer and thicker pairs of socks but it doesn’t help. And I’m not upgrading the wellies till they spring a leak. So the toes continue to freeze for a solid hour, twice a day, every day.

After this evening’s walk my toes had reached a new level of icy agony. Other parts of my body were cold too. Most of them to be honest. I warmed them up with potatoes, bacon, leeks and cream. This is so simple it barely qualifies as a recipe. It’s more of a therapeutic remedy.

For each person you will need:

Potatoes – It’s not for me to tell you how many. If you’re really cold and really hungry I suggest you have as many as you like.
Splash of olive oil – just enough to stop the bacon sticking to the pan
Leek – 2 small or 1 medium-sized
Streaky bacon – 4 rashers
Salt & pepper
Generous splash of single or whipping cream

Peel the potatoes and put them on to boil. If they’re big cut them into chunks about the size of eggs or slightly smaller.

In a frying pan heat the oil.

Cut the bacon into little squares. For goodness sake use scissors. It took me years to realise how stupid it is to cut bacon with a knife. Throw it into the pan.

Cut the leek into rounds. When the bacon’s cooked but not yet crispy add the leeks to the pan. Add pepper but no salt yet – you don’t know how salty the bacon is. Stir and put a lid on to soften up the leeks.

When the potatoes are done drain them. Take the leeks and bacon off the heat. Add enough cream to just moisten them and stir it through. Put the potatoes in a dish and crown with creamy, leeky, bacon.

Eat immediately for maximum heat gain, with a bit of salt if you need it. Feel the warmth spread from your belly to your happy, warm toes.

Man harvesting potatoes with long row of sacks running down the field

Just potatoes…

Women in a field packing leeks into boxes

leeks…

Woman feeding large sow with piglets in foreground

bacon…

Cow being milked with historic milking machine.

…and cream.

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Checkout Workers, I Salute You (with cranberry sauce)

This post is dedicated to everybody who worked on supermarket tills over Christmas, and maintained their good humour while all around them lost their cool at the crowded aisles, the effort and the expense. In particular this post is dedicated to the woman with bronze-coloured cornrows and a Caribbean accent the absolute opposite of winter, who was working at the local Tesco when I did my Christmas shop.

She put my fresh cranberries through the scanner and asked me what I do with them. Thinking they looked delicious she had bought a punnet for lunch and tried eating them raw. Of course they were hard, sour and an all round disappointment. It’s a natural mistake to make. They look gorgeous: redder than strawberries, shiny as cherries, bite-size as blueberries. The fruit that combined all those qualities would be a wonderful thing.

raw cranberries

Sweet to behold, sour on the tongue.

I explained I had bought the cranberries to make a sauce with sugar and orange peel and… but there was a big queue of shoppers inching their trolleys towards me in a menacing fashion and I couldn’t go into detail. So here’s the full version. Too late for Christmas Day, but not too late to have with turkey left-overs, or cheese on toast, or ham, or cold venison, or even porridge – I had it with porridge this morning along with a dollop of cream and some golden syrup. Greedy, but it’s only the third day of Christmas…

IMPORTANT: this is a sour, tangy sauce and nowhere near as sweet as the sauce you get in jars. If you want something that sweet you will need to double or even triple the sugar. Which might be spoiling good cranberries.

300g fresh cranberries
2 small eating apples
1 large orange
75g golden caster sugar*
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice

cranberry sauce ingredients

Raw sauce. Those chunks of apple are bigger than they ought to be.

Wash the fruit. Peel and core the apples and chop them into cranberry-sized pieces. Carefully peel the orange with a vegetable parer so you end up with one long, thin strip.

Squeeze the orange juice into a pan, and add the orange peel, apple pieces and cranberries. Stir in the sugar and spice.

Heat gently until the mixture is just simmering and cover. Heat, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop at uneven intervals like slow-motion popcorn. The sauce is ready when the apples are soft and all the cranberries have popped.

Fish out the orange peel and transfer the sauce to a serving dish. Let it cool, then keep it in the fridge. If you keep it covered it should be good for the rest of the Christmas season.

cranberry sauce.

Sauce. Good with all manner of things cooked and raw. Spoon it on.

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:

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

 Filling
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.