Recipes from A La Carte magazine, Christmas 1984

The recipe I posted for sticky toffee pudding back in 2008 resulted in a comments thread full of people reminiscing about A La Carte magazine. Back when I was a horrible precocious kid, my Mum used to get the magazine monthly. It was a beautiful thing, with gorgeous photography (unusual for food publications in the 80s), and some masterful typesetting, which I used to think back to fondly when I started working in magazines myself twenty years later.

The recipes were heavily influenced by the extravagant, rich French style of dinner party cooking. Lots of butter and cream, everything spiked with as much booze as you could lay your hands on, and the sort of preparation that would have your mother sweating and swearing in the kitchen for entire afternoons as she stitched ducks and chickens together for hours at a stretch.

My Mum used to lay on the most fabulous dinner parties, where she’d cook from A La Carte and from books by those 80s superstar chefs like John Tovey, Robert Carrier and Raymond Blanc. I didn’t get to come downstairs to try the food, but I could smell it wafting up through the bannisters that overlooked the dining room, and sometimes got to sample bits in the kitchen while she cooked. I also sneaked downstairs in the mornings while Mum and Dad slept the night’s partying off to work my merry way through the leftovers, including whatever wine was left at the bottom of glasses, thereby starting early on a life of dipsomania. She’s amazing, my Mum. She used to make petit fours from scratch. She made lucullan heaps of fruit glazed with lightly beaten eggwhites and dipped in caster sugar so they shimmered as if coated in powdered diamonds. The table would be laid with silverware polished until you could kill an ant with the reflections off a spoon. And we kids would be packed away to bed after handing out the chocolate-dipped physalis, devils on horseback, freshly roasted almonds or whatever other pre-dinner nibble she’d settled on, so as not to aggravate the guests. It was enough to raise an appetite that, in my case, has not yet subsided.

Although A La Carte, with its complicated and time-consuming recipes, hasn’t survived, it turns out that a lot of those who subscribed to the magazine kept their copies to cook from. Mike Ratcliffe, a reader of this blog, very kindly sent me scans of two pages from the December 1984 edition. They include a Christmas pudding recipe you’d be well-advised to make now ready for December, a boned and stuffed turkey recipe that other commenters here have been waxing lyrical over, and a yeasted sugar tart that sounds just the ticket. (I think you can probably leave the smoked salmon ice made wobblesome with gelatine safely in the 1980s, though; and the Persian recipes on the second page lack the sort of spicing we’d be used to nowadays.) Click on the images to enlarge them to a readable size. If any other readers out there have copies of the magazine with scans they’d like to share, please send them to – I’d love to hear from you, and I know there are lots of people out there who have similarly happy memories of 1980s bacchanalia they’re just as keen as I am to reproduce.

A la Carte recipes, Dec 1984
A la Carte Christmas recipes, Dec 1984. Click to embiggen.
A la Carte Christmas recipes, Dec 1984
A la Carte Christmas recipes, Dec 1984, p2. Click to embiggen.


Invalid meatballs

I’m currently in Edinburgh, helping out a friend who’s recently had an operation. Part of my plan for the week has been to get her healing up by cooking things which are tasty and full of good things; we’ve been breakfasting on yoghurt, blueberries and raw almonds; drinking unsweetened cranberry juice diluted with fizzy water; chomping our way through antioxidant-dense sweet potatoes – I don’t think I’ve ever consumed so many vitamins in such a short period before.

I made these meatballs a couple of evenings ago, when the extremely lovely Marsha Klein came round to visit us for dinner and conversation about general anaesthetic. The wounded GSE is, I have noticed, not so keen on vegetables on their own, so I hid a great wodge of spinach (niacin, zinc and vitamin-rich stuff, although the iron content is overstated by Popeye) in the meatballs along with some big handfuls of herbs. A bit of stale bread, soaked in milk, makes these really light and toothsome, and the herbs, lemon and coriander seeds give them a lovely aromatic lift. Alongside some buttered, herby rice; green beans stir-fried with garlic and lemon juice; some Greek butter beans and imam bayaldi from the deli; and a hearty dollop of home-made tzatziki (directions below), these went down an absolute treat. To make enough health-giving meatballs to serve four, you’ll need:

500g minced lamb
2 thick slices stale white bread
50ml milk
4 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
100g raw baby spinach leaves
25g each fresh coriander, parsley and mint
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
Zest of 1 lemon
1½ teaspoons salt
Several hefty turns of the pepper grinder
Olive oil to fry

6 inches of cucumber, sliced into 1-inch slivers
6 tablespoons Greek yoghurt
20g fresh mint
1 small clove garlic

Tear the bread into little pieces about the size of your fingernail, and soak them in the milk in a small bowl. Dice the onion and garlic finely, chop the herbs and spinach and grind the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Use your hands to squeeze together the lamb, soaked bread, and all the other meatball ingredients except the olive oil until you have distributed everything evenly – keep squeezing as you go, and you’ll find everything sticks together quite satisfyingly. Roll into meatballs about the size of a ping-pong ball, place them on a plate and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow them to firm up. (This will prevent the meatballs from coming apart while cooking, and helps them keep a nice round shape.)

While the meatballs are cooking, chop the cucumber into inch-long sections and julienne (cut into matchsticks) each of these finely. Crush the garlic clove and chop up the mint, then stir the cucumber, garlic and mint into the yoghurt. Set aside.

When you are ready to cook the meatballs, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and fry them, turning regularly to make sure they are browned all over, for 15 minutes. Serve with a dollop of tzatziki, and feel free to nix all those health benefits by drinking a large glass of red wine while you eat.