this blog is for you...

...if you too are an aspiring gardener who likes eating, drinking and some silly tales.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

On Soil and the Winter Sun

This is the heath not two weeks ago. It was a glorious winter's day. One for letting the sun deceive you.

November has been quite a month. There has been no progress in the garden, but walks with Willow have been made all the more enjoyable by mild weather and the pleasure of watching trees turn from greens to ochres and umbers.

I'm remarkably chippa for someone who has missed their deadline. As a result of not working hard enough, I have a hole where my garden should be. Willow is in good spirits because he is always in good spirits being the thoroughly spoilt hound that he is. Every morn as we walk the heath, he trots up a hello to swans that hiss and spit, beautiful though they might be. 'They ought to be friends, having long necks' a fellow rambler observes. The swans seem less keen. It matters not, for there are cheerier souls for Willow to meet. Such as this fellow below.

When Willow runs, the earth strikes hollow beneath his pads as if hampstead heath is giant grass-topped sponge ready to stain paws moss-green. I often put them to nose and have a sniff. Why? you ask. Ondaatje puts it very well, so I have borrowed this from The English Patient:

'Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog's paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It's a cathedral! her father had said, so-and so's garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen - a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal has taken during the day'.

Well, the heath is my cathedral. Look at it! Look!

Look again! For it is never the same...

As for the garden, it would have saved a lot of time when starting this blog had I simply predicted failure. The September deadline is long gone and with it any realistic chance of having vegetable beds ready before New Year. So there you have it. I stand before you with nothing to offer. All I have is this pencil drawing of what the garden may possibly look like if I won the lottery:

I lie! I do have some news: a new deadline! March 22nd. I have chosen this date as it is the one on my ticket to the Chelsea Flower Show 2012, and I don't intend to go there without a vegetable garden ready to fill with the inspiration I garner from it. I am ebay-ing to help fund said inspiration, so here's hoping that there are people out there willing to pay handsomely for 80s attire.

I have also been busy reading and drinking wine. About the drinking of wine I shall blog about later, as it has involved a number of wine pilgrimages which I wish to share with you, dear reader. As for the reading, I bought, in a spate of enthusiasm, all of Joy Larkcom's books to help me along with my vegetable garden of the future. Her chapter on good soil & manure in Grow Your Own Vegetables has been very useful. I read it religiously over Yom Kipur whilst atoning for sloth.

I have also been riddling. Now before you imagine me in oral mode, challenging innocents with quips like 'what has two legs in the morning and none by eve', may I tell you that by riddling I mean the activity of using an implement to do to soil more or less what a sieve does to flour. This is my riddle and the details of where I bought it can be read about here.

The task of riddling is incredibly time-consuming.

So if the earth is the earth is the earth, why riddle? The major benefit is that you get to know your soil intimately. You get a feel for the texture and a better understanding of its characteristics. This being London, my soil is clay laden. I find clumps of the stuff that smudge turmeric between my fingers. It is heavy, clotted and cold. Joy believes it a good thing to have, as long as it is fine, so I break it up as best I can and return it to the beds.

To bring you up to speed, I have emptied 2 of my 3 borders of soil so that I might improve the soil before returning it to raised beds. I have 7 tonnes of soil to sift, and haven't even begun emptying border 1 yet.

The soil is full of old roots which have to come out. These are the remnants, I suppose, of plants that did not make it. I have a dustbin full of them.

Then there are the worms, which, in order to save from being riddled, have to be teased out slowly from clumps.

And then there are the pebbles to expunge. I always knew my soil was pebble-laden and these are being reused as a base at the back of the garden, over which I shall smooth cement, so that my greenhouse has somewhere to sit.

Riddling is hard work. And despite Joy's wisdom, as I sift away, I do wonder what ever possessed me to begin this project. And as the days draw shorter, there's the horrific temptation to leave the fallow field unsown... the darker it gets the better, so I shan't see the mess I've made. Greek neighbours don't seem to mind. A few days ago, mid-riddle, they hailed me from their porch door with cheers of 'very good' and gifted a bag of apples from their tree. They cannot wait for the large eucalyptus in border 1 to go. They told me so, before gifting apples. Their vine also needs taking back, or removing entirely, as it has encroached our garden by a foot at least, pushing in the fence with it... so I shall not tell them I intend to cut the eucalyptus down, but trade with them: eucalyptus goes if vine goes. But more of that later.

Riddling does make for a lovely soil. But it does not end there: I finished Joy's chapter convinced of the necessity to procure 'good' poo.The manure needs be mixed with my riddled soil so that the soil may in turn become humus rich and attract lots of worms. The worms will then look after my garden for me. The more the worms, the better your soil, the better your vegetables. Or something like that. So as I riddle away, even though the end is nowhere in sight, I know I am doing probably the most important job I could do.

Whilst on the subject of poo, apparently a double-dip recession heads our way. With economic forecasts described as 'bleak', I shall continue to riddle, walk the heath, and read Walden to prepare myself for days living off beans. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

Duncan Cruickshanks' Deluxe Fish Soufflé

On the 5th November (Saturday last) the plot was to take husband to The Hospital Club for lunch. I neglected to explain, until halfway there, that he would have to get into the kitchen and cook it.

Husband is interested in food but not in doing any cooking. When we married in 2002, he made a promise, under no duress, to prepare a meal for me once a month. It was a romantic gesture. Next year shall herald our 10th anniversary and I put it to record that the number of times husband has kept to his word can be counted on one hand. With fingers to spare. And before you ask, BBQ does not count. 

At 11am, as we turned the corner of Gower Street, I read to him with much enthusiasm the details of Duncan Cruickshanks' Fish Masterclass. Of course I was terribly excited. Within a matter of hours, husband would be proficient in all manner of fish-related things: he would have shucked oysters and scallops; filleted flat and round fish; prepared the perfect fish stock... but that mattered not. I was there for one thing and one thing only. Soufflé. And not just any soufflé, but a deluxe fish soufflé. With lobster.

I have done a great many things in my kitchen but I have never made soufflé. I'm not sure why, but would hazard a guess that the scaremongering that often accompanies it has slipped into my subconscious and put me off. They're meant to be difficult - even if you fold the eggs just so, there's still the awful paranoia about taking it to table and the darned thing collapsing like a tired horse. No in-betweens, it's either success or failure, hit or miss. And don't you dare open the oven door!

There are reams of pages dedicated to the os and on'ts of soufflé. For Mrs. Beeton, they are the 'most difficult of all entrements' and 'demand' an 'experienced cook'.  For Elizabeth David, the 'timing of soufflés' is the thing, although this is 'entirely a matter of experience and depends upon practice and the knowledge of one's own oven'. She cautions anyone 'venturing upon a soufflé' for a dinner party to 'carry out a few experiments', noting the time taken and the temperature of the oven for the most successful. In her essay How not to Boil an Egg, M. F. K. Fisher suggests 'the resulting foamy delicate mass should be cooked slowly instead of fast', but concludes 'it should be baked in a quick oven for 15 to 20 mins'. Blimey. Then there are those who go on about the careful folding of whites into the mix: they mustn't be too mixed; you must add a little cornstarch; you must use a wooden spoon... and just when I'd thought I'd heard it all, the Blonde tells me that on masterchef, they insist the secret lies in the special application of butter, which must be brushed onto the ramekin in vertical strokes or else the soufflé won't rise. This is madness I tell you!

But get it wrong and your guests won't let you forget it. There are lists of the ones that have flopped. It's true. Someone wonderful has compiled such an one that you can read here, to which I would add Audrey Hepburn's soufflé, which collapses in spectacular style at Le Cordon Bleu. Just watch Sabrina.

The masterclass commenced at 11.30am. This was the 2nd, hosted by head chef Duncan Cruickshanks. You can read about the first here. It involved a starter of pig's head terrine, a main of pork belly, and was mighty fine.

Round two and the numbers attending had more than doubled. We sipped flutes of Buck's Fizz and snacked on mackerel baps whilst Duncan introduced us to the fish, prettily arranged on ice and destined for the soufflé. This seems as good a time as any to share the ingredients with you.

60 g scallops
6 oysters
60g fresh lobster
60g smoked haddock fillet
80g plaice
350ml milk
60g butter
60g flour
6 egg whites
2 egg yolks
100g spring onions
25g English mustard
80g parmesan cheese, finely grated

Aprons on we began by shucking the scallops. Duncan demonstrated the sensible way to do this, guiding the knife blade away from you just under the flat surface of the shell. He then cleaned the shell, producing a plump scallop sans roe.

Demo over and left to our own devices, Duncan's kitchen descended into disorder. There were three casualties and a bit of blood. Blue bandages were summarily dispensed and perpetrators executed. The roes are not required for the recipe but don't throw them away - they are exquisite. Do what Duncan does and dry them out for 3 days in a very low oven. They then grind down into powder which smells sublime and can be added as ingredient or garnish to many a dish.

Next came the shucking of oysters. Under Duncan's direction we held these with hinged end towards us, into which the blade was worked until the oyster popped open.

Then to double-shuck, we cut the second adductor muscle which releases the oyster entirely from the shell. The oysters were decanted into a bowl to use later, although a good deal more were decanted into husband's and my mouth. There were plenty spare. They were small and plump, just how I like them. I had shucked 75 Maldons for dinner the day before, but that's nothing: Brillat-Savarin tells on a Monsieur Laperte eating 32 dozen in one sitting, taking 'more than an hour over the task', whilst Sonya Thomas, 'The Black Widow', can eat 46 dozen in 10 minutes. I would do a Laperte and take my time.

But I digress. Next on the chopping block came the fish to prep: sea bass followed by plaice. The sea bass was for mains, so I shan't say much on that other than that the bones were destined for stock. The plaice was for the soufflé. Gloriously crimson spotted it was.

If you are wondering how to spot a fresh fish, Eliza Acton tells it best: 'The eyes should always be bright, the gills of a fine clear red, the body stiff, the flesh firm, yet elastic to the touch, and the smell not disagreeable'. Keep clear of the creature should these signs be reversed. We took our pick and awaited our turn for the flexible filleting knife, one chap pacing back and forth, bass in hand. 

The plaice being the flat fish that it is, is a little trickier to fillet than the bass. Duncan clipped the fins off with kitchen scissors, then pulled the skin off one side in order to obtain 2 fillets.

He then flipped the plaice over to remove two more fillets from the underside.

Husband grappled away with a supple bass, but I doubt he shall volunteer to fillet any fish in the near future. He had a good go at it, partly because he had to if he wanted a main course, but conceded he felt out of his element. It is quite hard to describe his technique so I shall say this: he is as good at filleting as he is at swimming, and he swims upright, as if peddling an invisible bicycle through the watery realm. On holiday I watch him through goggles as the tide moves him on.

The beer break was well timed. A round was enjoyed whist Duncan cooked lobsters, hoiked out of a  pailful of ice where they were sleeping and lowered into pans of boiling water.

These were cooked at a rolling boil for 3 minutes. If this sounds a little under, Duncan explained that as the lobster would be cooked again in the soufflé mix, or under a hot grill if you were going for thermidor, it would toughen up if you didn't keep it's time in boiling water brief.

With a cleaver he chopped the chimney-red brute in half and removed the tail meat, which was cut into chunks and put to the side. With all of the fish prepped, we were ready to start the soufflé. Here's Duncan's method:

-Pre-heat the oven to 200c, 400f, gas mark 6

-Place all the fish in a pan, save oysters, add milk and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and allow to cool

-Drain the fish thoroughly, retaining the milk and then flake the fish into reasonably large pieces

-To prepare the Béchamel sauce, soften the spring onions in the butter, ensuring that they do not brown. Once soft, add the flour, working it in thoroughly with a wooden spoon

-Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the milk, whisking until smooth. Add the mustard and season well with s & p

-Return the pan to the heat for about 5 minutes stirring frequently, allowing the sauce to reach a thick consistency that comes away from the edges of the pan

-Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the yolks one at a time
-Stir in half of the cheese until dissolved, and the fish and then leave to cool

-35mins before serving, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks in a clean grease free bowl (you clean your bowl by wiping it with lemon juice)

-Place a third of the egg whites on top of the Béchamel and gently fold using a wooden spatula

-Add the rest of the egg whites in the same way, do not stir or beat in order that you retain as much volume as possible

-Butter 6 souffle dishes and pour the mixture to about 3 quarters full. Add in a raw oyster to each soufflé and add enough mixture to fill the the ramekin to the top. Run your finger around the outside of the ramekin, topping the soufflé

-Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and place in the preheated oven for 10-12 mins. The soufflés should rise by about a third. Serve immediately, with rocket and parmesan salad 

And what a comfort it was to eat. It felt as if we had achieved something very important in the cooking of it, not to mention debunking some myths. Of course Duncan has a secret to a great soufflé. Haven't you learnt anything? Any self-respecting chef has to have one! His is that the side of the ramekin should be perfectly straight.

It tickles me that Bush was eating soufflé when Obama called about bin Laden. He was asked what he was doing at the time and said, 'I was eating soufflé at Rise Restaurant with Laura and two buddies'. He then called it a 'great victory', although ABC News noted he was 'not overjoyed'. I imagine he was talking about the soufflé. He should have come to the club. Watching Duncan make soufflé is much like watching a great bartender mix a cocktail. It was a success, and he didn't change spoons. The one he did use was not wooden. As for the gumpf you may have read, it's a lot of hot air. Keith Floyd puts it best: 'There is no mystery to soufflés - they are delightful things, just don't make them when everyone piles in after a day at the races. Save them for a quiet time when you can patter about in a relaxed way in the kitchen'.

And if your souffle doesn't rise, you can always play that game I rather like where you mix up boiled eggs and raw in a tray and then smash them against your head. Or adapt the recipe above to achieve a slightly thicker Béchamel sauce for fish pie. This will please anyone who can't make soufflé but believes that a fish, having lived its life in water, once caught, should have no further contact in the element in which it has been born and raised.

I suppose I should wish you good luck. My secret to a great soufflé? It is impossible without the eggs.