Last night’s dinner—feast even—turned out so well that Freddie, my chef son, challenged me to blog about it. He’s about to launch his food blog. I will be a regular reader.
My food blog begins with a mistake because I thought that the heart of the feast was two dishes from Ottolenghi, but now I discover that only one was. The main course came from Thomasina Miers, who was unknown to me until I looked up her recipe on the web a few seconds ago. I should perhaps have guessed that it wasn’t an Ottolenghi recipe because the preamble says how the author likes to curl up for all of a winter’s day smelling the slowly cooking food. It also says: “Let food be your blanket.” That’s not Ottolenghi’s style: he’s much more active and stringent and would prefer that food be your inspiration rather than your blanket.
My starting point for the first course was lentils and Ottolenghi. I’ve always loved lentils, not least dahl, and the McShanes, my hosts last weekend, served delicious lentil soup, and Paul Garner, my friend and their other guest, quoted Ottolenghi to me and urged me to buy his books. So I searched on the web and found Ottolenghi’s red lentil and chard soup. Perfect. I took off to buy chard, not exactly sure what it looked like. Neither Sainsbury’s nor the Little Waitrose had it, but the Saturday market did. A box of two sorts of leaves said kale and chard, and, ignoramus that I am, I had to be reassured that I had the right leaves.
It’s a rough looking plant, and only the leaves are needed. I had to wash off the soil, which felt authentic, and the discarded stalks filled our food waste bin. The lentils have to boil for 35 minutes and generate a lot of scum that has to be removed. Another challenge was that a large saucepan was full with the 2.5 litres of water Ottolenghi recommended. So before adding the chopped chard and coriander I had to move the soup to my marmalade saucepan, which can hold 5 litres. But I surmounted all these hurdles, and the soup was well received, including by Freddie, a stern critic.
During the dinner Freddie reminded me that a recipe is only a guide, it doesn’t have to be followed exactly. Although he has a cookery book coming out in April, he seems disdainful of those who follow slavishly recipes. After a discussion of how industry has killed the tomato, we agreed that the best way to cook was to start from whatever is in season and good and improvise from there. This is maybe too tough for me.
But I do recommend Ottolenghi’s recipe, and here it is:http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/red-lentil-and-chard-soup-shop
The shoulder of pork braised in cider was in many ways an easier recipe, although it wasn’t clear how long it would need to be in the oven—something between 3.5 and 5 hours. I worked on the principle of the longer the better and had it on by 3.30. I had to run around trying to find all the ingredients and spent about 10 minutes gazing at the spices in Sainsbury’s before concluding there were no caraway seeds. They didn’t seem to be much missed.
The most important ingredient is clearly the meat. Thomasina’s recipe was for eight, but I was cooking for only four. I got a marvellous piece of boned shoulder of pork at our upscale butchers, and the butcher whipped off the skin in seconds. He was about to discard it when I said I wanted it. Don’t let a butcher throw away your skin if you try this recipe.
Back home all was ready to go in the oven in minutes, and we went to the Royal Academy, blasé about the basting that was supposed to happen hourly. My only mistake at this early stage was to add too much cider. The recipe said 250ml for a piece of meat half as big again as the piece I had, but I added about 300ml, fearful of it being too dry. Next time I’ll add only about 200ml, to end up with thicker and perhaps still tastier gravy.
Back home from the academy I draped the skin over the meat with about 90 minutes to go, perhaps not enough. Fifteen minutes before you serve you take out the main meat, put the skin onto a baking dish and turn up the oven to 220 degrees. I did this, and just to be sure that the skin would make good crackling I turned the oven to fan. The result was that I burnt one end of the crackling, but the unburnt majority made tremendous crackling.
The potato, celeriac, and apple mash was easy to make, and again I enjoyed removing the soil from the celeriac. Maybe I should start buying potatoes that are covered in soil instead of the usual washed ones.
The dish was a big hit, and I recommend it without hesitation—and will make it again avoiding the mistakes I made this time but probably making new ones. Here’s the recipe: