Spanish, no flies

chorizoWe had two sets of friends round for lunch today. This presented a bit of a problem; first off, they’ve both got very small children I like spending time with, and the children create problems with punctuality. It is remarkable, according to parents I know, how nappies are filled, vomit is produced and knees grazed the very minute you want to leave the house. I needed to cook something I could leave on the stove for an hour or so, in case of lateness, and which would also need little attention if I wanted to play with the kids.

I ended up with a weasely interpretation of a Gordon Ramsay chorizo casserole, first introduced to me by my teetotal mother-in-law. I am not, of course, worthy to make changes to recipes by the divine Gordon, but I am also considerably too big for my boots, so I have made changes with gay abandon.

The original recipe reads:

SPLIT RED LENTIL AND SPICY SAUSAGE STEW
Serves 4

Split red lentils are a real store-cupboard essential, ready to be thrown into a winter soup or stew as a natural thickener. Chorizo is another useful winter standby – it keeps in the fridge indefinitely and will jazz up all manner of dishes.

1 medium chorizo
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp paprika
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
2-3 red peppers, finely chopped
1l brown chicken stock
6 plum tomatoes, skinned and deseeded
250g red lentils
2 tbsp freshly chopped coriander
2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley

1 Cut the chorizo sausage into fairly thick chunks, about 2.5cm long. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan or casserole, add the paprika and garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the sausage, onion, celery and peppers. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the sausage begins to sizzle. 2 Add chicken stock, tomatoes and lentils, reduce the heat and simmer for 1-2 hours. 3 Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve immediately.

I mess with this recipe in a thoroughly disrespectful manner, especially considering that it’s
from the pen of Gordon, Canon of the Casserole; for six people I use two chorizo, a couple of tablespoons of paprika, a teaspoon each of fennel and cumin seeds with the paprika, and four peppers, leaving the amounts of onion, celery, stock and tomato the same. (I cheat and use two tins of plum tomatoes.) Towards the end I add a wine glass of marsala (anathema to my poor mother-in-law, who doesn’t know what she’s missing) and about half a lemon’s worth of juice.

What is it with the British and paprika? Here, it’s sold in pathetic quantities; you buy it in spice jars of the same volume as those they sell star anise, coriander seed and . . . everything else in. For a while now I’ve been buying spices and herbs at Daily Bread, a wholefood warehouse in Cambridge where they sell them by the jam jar or by the enormous plastic bag. They’re mildly barking wholefood Christians, but the spices are great, so I ignore the God stuff and just pillage their shelves, thinking wicked, gluttonous thoughts.

There is no point in buying a pathetic pot of paprika from the supermarket; this recipe (like many Spanish and Hungarian recipes) requires two tablespoons of the stuff, which means a good half-pot in supermarket terms. Paprika is powdered, dried capsicum or red pepper; it isn’t chile-hot like cayenne pepper, but has an almost smoky, deep sweetness. Here is a phenomonal amount of powdery redness with the fennel, cumin and garlic.

I fry all the spices together in olive oil, then add the chopped vegetables, and stir-fry with vigour, dancing all the while in an inappropriate manner to a kid’s album by They Might Be Giants, in an attempt to get in the mood for the four small visitors who are arriving soon. The chorizo rings do contain some chili, but not enough to hurt little mouths.

Once the vegetables are blanched, I add the lentils, stir fry a little longer, and then add the tomatoes and liquids. This will now be perfectly happy sitting on the stove for a few hours, which gives me ample opportunity to do my dinosaur impressions in the living room once my guests arrive.

A word of caution; I am not a parent, and so I’m very prone to over-simplify around child-feeding-philosophy. I do believe that bright colours go down well, though, and that bite-sized bits work well too. The neophobe toddlers I’ve been playing dinosaurs with (I feel that I have done my work for the day in inculcating feelings of omnivorous superiority to the herbivore Brontosaurus. The kids and I have decided that he is beneath contempt, lacking any normal, healthy interest in sausage) are especially interested in eating this once they’ve had a stir and dropped some extra sausage in. (Later, we go into the garden and pick our own apples and pears. A miracle occurs – suddenly the children are interested in eating fruit.)

We serve up lunch with a good splodge of cous-cous, flavoured with shallots, fennel, cumin and coriander. The kids throw a lot of it around, but also ingest a surprising amount. My work here is done.

The children later gravitate to the television, which we have pre-prepared with lots of DVDs of cartoons by Hayao Miyazaki. We grown-ups sit around the kitchen table, drinking a ridiculously potent chestnut liqueur which I bought in France on holiday. One Dad tells me that we must invite them round again soon; he likes the way I cook.

Pick-your-own garlic

Here in the Weasel household, we get through a hell of a lot of garlic. Especially during the very short period in the year (around July) when you can buy green garlic (this is garlic which is fresh from the ground and has not been dried; green garlic has a very sweet, delicate taste and roasts magnificently), we spend a fortune; the supermarkets ask a premium for it. Rather than paying my entire salary to European garlic magnates, I decided that this year I’d plant some.

You don’t have to buy any special kind of garlic for growing; the stuff you buy in the supermarket is fine. I bought a bulb of elephant garlic (a giant variety – it’s quite unusual to find it in the shops in the UK, and I ended up paying ¬£4 for my precious, half-pound bulb at the Burwash Manor Larder, a delicatessen near Cambridge), and a net of regular garlic bulbs. You can see the difference in size here; the bulb on the right is normal garlic (and the same size as the garlic you probably have in the kitchen now). The elephant garlic is . . . elephantine. It doesn’t taste as strong as smaller varieties, but it’s a good roaster, and the individual cloves are huge and beautiful; this bulb (bigger than my fist) only produced four cloves, each of them enormous and juicy-looking.

In the UK, it’s best to plant garlic in October, although some garden centres carry a specialist garlic you can plant in the spring. October-planted garlic will be bigger and taste better. It’ll be ripe in the summer. It’s an unattractive plant (which is why I have decided to only give one bed in my rather small garden up for it, along with a container – I want to see whether it performs best in the container or in the ground), but much more of it is edible than the parts you can buy in the supermarket; the shoots which are produced in the spring can be eaten like a gorgeously garlicky spring onion, and the scapes (the flowering heads), which have to be removed to increase the size of the bulbs, can be cooked as a vegetable; they make a magnificent stir-fry. It’s worth making a bit of the garden look mildly hideous until next July.

The larger the individual clove you plant, the larger the bulb of garlic it will produce next year. This is one of the four cloves of elephant garlic with one from the supermarket. I was lucky; both bulbs of supermarket garlic had large, evenly-sized cloves. I haul the remains of this summer’s sweet peas out, dig in some compost and plant the garlic – the elephant cloves go in 15cm deep, the others 10cm deep. I leave enough space to make sure there’s enough room for the bulbs to grow nice and big.

I wish Waitrose were still selling solo garlic, a Chinese variety which is much more mellow and creamy than regular garlic, and which grows as a single, spherical clove. My Dad’s Chinese, and he remembers eating it as he was growing up. Garlic is immensely important in Chinese cooking. There are references to the bulb in Chinese literature from four thousand years ago, where lambs prepared for sacrifice were sprinkled with garlic to make them more appealing to the gods. I think I’ll sacrifice a chunk of lamb larded with garlic to . . . myself some time next week.

I had a boyfriend whose mother, a teacher, refused to eat garlic in any form, in case her students smelled it on her breath. What a waste of eating opportunities. Parsley is meant to help deodorise the breath, and red wine is supposed to help too, if you’re the sort to worry about that kind of thing. If you worry about the smell on your hands after you’ve been cooking with it, you can get rid of it completely by rubbing your hands with a piece of stainless steel (a teaspoon will do) under a running tap. I have no idea how this works, but it does; try it. (It also works on unpleasant perfumes which have been sprayed on you as you pass a keen shop assistant.) I use this rather natty, hollow, stainless-steel pebble, which I got from John Lewis; you can also buy them online at Royal Doulton.

Quince Jelly

quincesI didn’t make any quince jelly last year; the quinces on the tree at my Mum’s house came ripe and then dropped off while I was busy getting married and going on honeymoon. This was an ill-considered piece of timing on my part, and resulted in a year of married bliss with no quince jelly. Catastrophe. This needed putting right before we found each other weak and snappish at the lack of sugar, our marriage under intolerable, hypoglycaemic strain.

Quinces are a lot like a large pear in appearance; they’re also covered with a soft, furry down. They smell extremely fragrant, but they’re not edible raw; a raw quince is very hard, astringent and bitter. Cooked, however, they change in character completely. They lose their golden-yellow colour and their tart taste, and become pinkish, soft and intensely scented.

When I make quince jelly, I follow Mrs Beeton’s recipe. (There are only a very few of Mrs Beeton’s recipes I would happily cook from, but her preserves are usually excellent, and, of course, preserving was much more important to the refrigerator-free Victorians than it is to us.) It’s very simple – all you need is quinces, water and sugar. She says:

INGREDIENTS – To every pint of juice allow 1 lb. of loaf sugar.

Mode – Pare and slice the quinces, and put them into a preserving-pan with sufficient water to float them. Boil them until tender, and the fruit is reduced to a pulp; strain off the clear juice, and to each pint allow the above proportion of loaf sugar. Boil the juice and sugar together for about 3/4 hour; remove all the scum as it rises, and, when the jelly appears firm when a little is poured on a plate, it is done. The residue left on the sieve will answer to make a common marmalade, for immediate use, by boiling it with 1/2 lb. of common sugar to every lb. of pulp. Time – 3 hours to boil the quinces in water; 3/4 hour to boil the jelly.

(If you prefer metric measurements, use 600ml of juice to every 450g of sugar.)

Quinces are, as I mentioned above, absolutely rock-hard. I sharpened my big cook’s knife until it had an edge that would put a samurai sword to shame, and started to lay about the quinces, helping the task along by imagining the faces of countless enemies on each one. (I bear grudges for decades. It provides me with excellent chopping-fuel.)

sliced quinceRipe quinces often have small brown patches inside, as in this picture (they’ll get browner as they sit in your pan and the oxygen gets to them, too). Don’t worry. It doesn’t mean your quince is bad. My Mum, who taught me to make this, always insisted that it’s important that you leave the seeds in, but I do wonder whether she’s confusing quinces with citrus fruits, where the seeds are important in jam-making for the pectin, the enzyme which makes the jam gel properly. I give her the benefit of the doubt and leave them in anyway. I also deviate a little from Mrs Beeton here; I don’t pare (peel) the quinces, having discovered a few years ago that it doesn’t make any difference to the finished jelly; you’ll want to peel them if you intend on making the marmalade (quince cheese) that she mentions, but I’m not intending on doing that; there’s little enough room in my cupboards as it is.

Le Creuset pansAbout twenty chopped quinces fill my two largest Le Creuset pans. I’ve plonked my knife and an apple between the pans so you can get an idea of scale – these pans are 26 and 28cm in diameter – this is a lot of chopped quince. The largest pan (the blue one) needs about three litres of water to fill it enough to make the quince bits bob about merrily, the orange pan about two and a half. Simmering for three hours will reduce the quince to a pulp in a gorgeously pink juice, and will scent your whole house with a honeyed, fruity perfume.cooked quince

I used to strain jellies by lining a sieve with butter muslin and balancing it precariously on top of the bowl I was straining the jelly into. This year I have seen sense and bought a proper jelly bag from Lakeland. I’m not impressed; the metal stand is coated with red plastic, but the plastic is flaking off the ring around the top as if it’s got a particularly nasty skin disease. I need to be careful that none of it ends up in the jelly.

jelly bagThe bowl I want to strain into is too big for the stand. It has to balance on it precariously. My hairy-handed sous chef, Mr Weasel, will need to hold it steady when I put the pulp in the bag.

Quinces contain enough pectin to gel naturally, but the set you get from quince-pectin alone is quite soft. I prefer a harder set, so I use jam sugar, which comes with pectin already added.

The orange pan yields five pints of juice, the blue one six. Bugger, that’s a lot. I don’t have enough jam jars. Today’s most shocking discovery is that it’s cheaper to buy Tesco Value marmalade and throw it away (31p per jar – and this is difficult, because throwing perfectly good food away makes me feel physically ill – but what do you do with six lb of jarless, cheap jam?) than it was to buy my pristine jars and lids from Lakeland (about 50p, including the lid, which has to be bought separately). Mr Weasel, craving jelly, drives to Tesco and buys six jars of sacrificial marmalade.

quince jelly
After 45 minutes of simmering (with no lid), 22lb (10 kilos) of quince jelly is ready to go into the sterilised jars. This should be enough to go on crumpets, accompany and glaze roast lambs, drizzle over blue cheeses and make presents for the neighbours until next autumn.