I’ll raise a tart to that…

The table's set By the way, we never eat anyone’s health, always drink it. Why should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody’s success?

Jerome K. Jerome

So I’m still picking glitter out of the floorboards and suspect I will be for some time.

We returned from my parents’ just in time to prepare our New Year’s Eve party, planned as an elegant dinner for six – all (bar one heavenly Portugeezer) people we’d spent Millennium Eve with. I was looking forward to it, rather loving the fact that in a world where things change at a terrifying pace, some friendships remain constant. Those who were dear to us then are dear to us now, their presence woven like the weft through the (time) warp of our lives. But then, over the course of the morning, the party grew to twelve adults and four children. More linens, more glasses, more food, more fun. More angels at my table.

Sean and I spent a happy day getting everything together. We chilled champagne, roasted meats, peeled vegetables, whisked dressings. I made a delicious chocolate cake, but given our increased numbers I needed a second pudding I could pull together from things in the larder.

I made some mincemeat in November. Not just any mincemeat either, the world’s best mincemeat, from Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook No2: Preserves, fat with fruit and fragrant with brandy. I’d used up half the jar making mince pies for the highlight of my social calendar, The Dog Walkers’ Christmas Party in Clissold Park, but I still had quite a bit left.

Mince pies in the parkA cold party......with warm mulled wine At least someone dressed up!The dog walkers’ party in Clissold Park

I threw together a quick tart, with pastry from the freezer, a couple of thinly sliced apples and a walnut-y crumble topping. If you have any mincemeat left over, it’s a great way to use it up.

At 4am, surrounded by a flotsam of plates and glasses and ends of cheese, I sat at our marble counter with my dearest friend in the world sipping the last of the champagne as our husbands and her children dozed in beds and on sofas around the house. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years. Our lives have changed a lot. But the one thing that drew us together in the first place remains constant. Neither of us ever wants the party to end. We may not be dancing on the speakers any more, we may have swapped the night bus for taxis and (sometimes) cava for premier cru, but we’re always there, ‘talking nonsense’ when less doughty, more sensible souls are tucked up in their beds. How lucky I feel to be entering a new decade doing the very thing that has brought me so much happiness over so many years. So here’s to nonsense, here’s to old friends and new ones, here’s to constancy and here’s to change. I’ll raise a tart to that.

Happy New year!The spreadA bit of beefHoping for some beef... Damian's new motto

Mincemeat crumble tart

Mincemeat crumble tart

1 sheet of ready-roll all-butter shortcrust pasty
2 crisp eating apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
About 200g mincemeat, enough for a nice thick layer
180g plain flour
70g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
50g finely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Butter a 22cm loose-bottomed flan tin.

Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some egg wash over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes. Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.

While the tart shell is baking, make the crumble. Whisk together the flour and sugar. Rub in the butter until it is the texture of coarse crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

Line the tin with a layer or two of sliced apples, spoon over a good thick layer of mincemeat and sprinkle on the crumble topping. Bake until golden, about 35-40 minutes. Serve warm or cold with custard, cream or crème fraîche.

Happy endings

Lemon Possets When I brought these to the table, Beth instantly took a picture and sent it to her husband Tom. As he was on stage trying to make people laugh at the time, I’m sure he was thrilled.

It was my turn to host my book club. Normally, we have a wild and wonderful smörgåsbord, with everyone bringing a dish, but what with it being at my house and me being a control freak and everything, I couldn’t resist making the whole meal.

Some of us had been to see Julie and Julia together, so I decided on a simple French feast which would give me a chance to make Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon again. (Do you do this too? If I love a dish, I often make it a few times in quite rapid succession so that my hands and eyes can ‘learn’ it.)

Dining Table Reading is thirsty work.

Figs

As a nibble to go with drinks, I made warm Rosemary Cashews from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. They’re so simple, they’ve become a staple in this house – as essential to the cocktail hour as ice and good vodka. I scattered 500g of unsalted cashews on a baking sheet and toasted them at 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 for eight minutes or so until they were golden and then tossed them in a tablespoon of melted butter, a tablespoon of flaky sea salt, two teaspoons of light Muscovado sugar, two tablespoons of finely minced rosemary and half a teaspoon of sweet, smoked paprika (Ina uses cayenne, but I didn’t have any in the drawer, so paprika it was). Serve warm and watch them vanish.

To start, I made a quick salad of leaves dressed in mustardy vinaigrette and put a couple of little toasts topped with grilled goat’s cheese and some finely sliced pickled sweet chilli peppers scattered over the top. For our main event, of course it was the glorious boeuf bourguignon with boiled fir apple potatoes and buttered peas (thank you, Louisette Bertholle).

As a sweet finale, I made lemon posset, that most traditional of English puddings. To create a little entente cordiale on the plate, I served them in those little glass yoghurt pots I hauled back from France in the summer and David Lebovitz’s flawless Lemon-Glazed Madeleines on the side. Just like the boeuf bourguignon, they were so meltingly delicious, they sent me into obsessive-compulsive overdrive and I couldn’t resist making them again the next day. I took a batch to the park as a Friday treat for my 9am dog walking posse (pack?) and they vanished quicker than you can say ‘fetch’.

Madeleines 2 My second batch of madeleines in two days.

PS We read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell my Lovely. By some miracle, when Séan came home from the football (Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0 – come on you Gooners!) at 10pm, we were actually talking about the book.

Lemon Posset

Lemon Posset ‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’

I made 75 of these for Paula and Jack’s wedding a few weeks ago. They’re the perfect dessert in my opinion, tart and sweet, rich but refreshing, so simple to make and yet they taste as though you’ve spent hours in the kitchen. Also, you can make them the day before, which is always a good thing.

600ml double cream
150g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
The juice of 2 large lemons

Serves 6

Pour the cream into a large saucepan (it will bubble up very enthusiastically – you have been warned) and add the sugar. Warm gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and boil for exactly 3 minutes, without stirring. Remove from the heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Strain the mixture into a jug then pour into 6 small glasses. Cool, cover then refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

Lost Postcards from the edge: Part III

All SetAll set…

Hallloooo out there. Did you think I’d fallen into a vat of butter, flambéed myself to ashes, run off with the groom? A combination of work crises and computer meltdowns and, oh, life has kept me away from you all these past two weeks and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Smack me then read on.

The wedding was heaven – ankle-swelling-bone-achingly-exhausting heaven. The sun shone, the bride looked ravishing, the guests glamorous and the band’s tunes drifted over the trees into the woodland late into the night.

If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘Can you get a wedding for 140 into a mini?’, I’m here to tell you, you can. Lady de B picked me up at 5am the day before the Big Day in her shiny blue car. (When Sean was ill , she used to drive me back and forth to the hospital so often, we christened it ‘The Glambulance’, now I think it needs an altogether more festive name – ‘The Marriage Mobile’ perhaps?)

The passenger seat was pushed so far forward to accommodate pans and plates, wooden spoons, newly-sharpened knives and plastic spatulas, heart-shaped cheeses and wooden trugs of French butter, I had to take out my hair slide to give me a little more room. But this wasn’t all. We had to stop off at New Covent Garden Market to pick up the fresh produce. As we pulled up, the man at the gate did a double take and laughed. Laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes. You can hardly blame him – the Marriage Mobile is about the size of one of the tyres on the huge refrigerated wagons he normally ushers into the market. Somehow, we managed to load trays of raspberries, boxes of herbs and two litre bottles of cream into every spare crevice. But we still had two trays of lemons. In the end, we crammed them into pans and bowls, tucked them into baskets of tea towels and jammed them into the glove compartment. But it still wasn’t enough. We were reduced to throwing them into the back and hoping the dear little things would find their own cosy nests. I’m convinced, months from now, Lady de B will be driving along and the last little citrus will roll forward into the foot well.

We arrived at Paula and Jack’s at 9am and the following 48 hours were some of the most exhausting, exhilarating and blissfully exciting of my life. I didn’t sit down for two days. It was wonderful. I loved it. Everyone else seemed to love it too. When can we do it again?

Here are some snapshots of the day. I just hope I didn’t get too much butter on the lens and they’re not too out of focus – there wasn’t much time for pictures in the middle of assembling all of the deliciousness, so I hope you’ll forgive me. In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some more of the recipes, but for now I give you…

Paula and Jack’s Wedding Menu

Canapés

Three crostini:
Potted mackerel, crème fraîche and dill;
Goat’s cheese, figs and Parma ham;
Roast butternut squash with feta and thyme

Muhamarra, roast red pepper and walnut dip, with crudités

Persian lamb meatballs with a mint and yogurt dipping sauce

Spinach, ricotta and pine nut filo parcels

~

Dinner

Spit roasted hog and lamb

Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad

Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

Green salad with vinaigrette

Sweet potato gratin with sage and crème fraîche

Minted new potatoes

~

Pudding

Lemon posset with blackberries and lemon shortbread biscuits

Chocolate, raspberry and almond brownies

~

Cheese

Cropwell Bishop Stilton

Heart-shaped Neufchatel cheese

Hawes Wensleydale

Pears, grapes and figs

Paula and Jack’s apricot and ginger wedding chutney

~

The marqueeBunting ahoy…

Mismatched vintage china Mismatched vintage china.

The top tableGorgeous scabious, roses and stocks mixed with herbs in little posies. Note the olives in vintage teacups and you can just see the jars of wedding chutney on everyone’s seat.

The kitchen Getting ready for the wedding. Our little army of helpers and ‘waiters in waiting’ in Paula and Jack’s kitchen.

The meat roasts The hog and lamb roast.

The buffet The buffet.

 Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad.

 Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

 Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

 Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

The morning after the crime scene before

Courgette muffinSpice cookie

Last night we sat in our friends Riccardo and Alastair’s garden sipping watermelon martinis among the pots of lavender as the sun dipped behind St Mary’s church spire. Barney and Elliot, (the boys’ handsome black-and-white cocker spaniel and Barney’s most beloved friend) tumbled around the terrace. Candles flickered in lanterns and the Noisettes’ Wild Young Hearts drifted through the French windows. It was a perfect summer’s evening.

IMAGE_172

Then Lady de B’s phone rang. At that time on Saturday evening, it would normally be someone enquiring where the party was. But it wasn’t. It was the police saying the alarm was going off at her house a mile or so away. Sean and Lady de B took off to investigate, leaving the rest of us to finish off the martinis and speculate about what kind of athletic act Lady de B’s cat, Whisky, must have got up to to set off the alarm.

Sean called to say there really had been a break in. Nothing had been taken – the thief panicked when the alarm went off and had broken the large window at the front of the house in his haste to get away. They were waiting for someone to come and board up the window, so the five of us headed off down the Kingsland Road to keep them company.

We set the table and ordered takeaway from the local Thai restaurant, so by the time the boarding up men got there, we were sitting down to a feast of green chicken curry, beef satay and coconut rice. I’ve never been to a better catered crime scene, nor one where the champagne flowed so freely. Lady de B, you are a hostess to your bones and the perfidious fiend who attempted to breach the manoir last night is in for some seriously bad karma. At the very least, a life of sunken soufflés and wrinkled table linen, which I know is your own vision of purgatory.

This morning, I was feeling a bit fragile. I was good only for a long bubble bath with a fat paperback followed by a slightly wobbly attempt at a manicure. By this afternoon I was feeling a little brighter so some restorative baking was in order – a few muffins to snack on and cookies to nibble during the week. When the going gets tough, the tough get baking…

Courgette and Pine Nut Muffins

Baked

These were a bit experimental so this mixture makes 17, not a nice, neat dozen. If I were capable of complicated maths at this point, I would have played around with the quantities, but hey, it’s Sunday.

Just one bite

300g plain flour, sieved
40g jumbo oats
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1-2 tsp flaky sea salt, depending on the saltiness of your Parmesan
A few grinds of black pepper
6 big leaves of basil, shredded
2 eggs
375ml whole milk yoghurt
60g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
90g Parmesan, coarsely grated, plus another 20g to sprinkle on the top
270g courgettes, coarsely grated
70g cup pine nuts, toasted
90g sultanas

Preheat the oven to 200C/400f/Gas mark 6. Line two muffin tins with 17 paper cases.

Grated courgette

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, pepper, basil and Parmesan. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yoghurt and butter. Pour over the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until roughly combined – don’t overmix. Add the courgettes, pine nuts and sultanas and stir until just evenly distributed.

Stiring the batter Adding the cougettes, sultanas and pine nutsReady for the oven

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling each about ¾ full, and sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean, 16-18 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for a couple of minutes then turn out onto the rack. Eat them warm or store them, when they’re completely cooled, in an airtight container for up to two days. They freeze well for up to one month.

Spice cookies

Making cookies

It’s a miserable sort of day today. When I lived in Scotland, I learned to call this kind of weather ‘dreich’, a word that perfectly describes this wearisome combination of overcast, drizzly and cold. Spice cookies were the order of the day. I based this recipe in one I found in a French baking book. I upped the spice quota a bit and added some espresso and the combination was pretty good.

Makes about 28 cookies

90g unsalted butter
30g light Muscovado sugar
80g honey
200g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp espresso-ground coffee (optional)
A pinch of cloves
A good pinch of salt

For the glaze:

150g icing sugar, sieved
1tbsp lemon juice
1tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2.

Measuring the batter Ready to bake

Melt together the butter, sugar and honey in a saucepan and let it cool a little. Tip in the flour, spices, espresso and salt and beat together until you have a smooth batter. Roll the batter into balls of about 1.5cm diameter. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, a couple of centimetres apart. Bake for about 18 minutes until lightly golden. While they’re cooking, make the glaze by beating together the icing sugar, lemon juice and water. Brush the glaze onto the cookies while they’re still warm and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

Glazed cookies

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Feet up the next day…All relaxed
Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Champagne
~
Muhamarra ~
Muhamarra
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
~
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
~
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
~
Colston Bassett Stilton
Parmesan
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone

Happy, happy Easter

Every Good Friday, our friend Richard throws my favourite party of the year: The Easter Jamboree. He and Emma started this tradition a dozen or so years ago for the waifs and strays left in London for the holiday and it has grown so much that up to 50 of us now stay in the city to join the festivities each spring. We take over a first-floor terrace restaurant in Covent Garden for rosé and steak frites, gossip and occasional scandal. What starts as lunch usually ends up in a bar somewhere. This year, 1am found us in Richard’s flat with Séan teaching our Spanish friend Alex to do the Eightsome Reel while I raided the fridge to rustle up spring onion and salmon frittata for the dozen or so merry survivors.

After such a great party, a post mortem is essential. We usually have a lunch here on Easter Sunday where newspapers are read, champagne is drunk and the various levels of wickedness displayed on Friday are dissected in near-forensic detail. Who fell of a chair? Who ran off with that cute waiter? Did anyone break a glass, a limb, a heart?

I spent Saturday in the gently soothing activity of preparing the feast for the following day – hummus and lebneh balls dipped in smoked paprika and toasted sesame seeds, platters of salami, and my first-ever dolma. I spent a happy few hours soaking and filling vine leaves. Sometimes the world – or at least the television schedulers – are kind, so I sat at my kitchen counter and rolled my vine leaves while watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As they simmered on the stove, they filled the house with their reviving and comforting lemony, spicy aroma.


After our Mediterranean canapés, we reverted to trad English for our main course: the tenderest Poll Dorset Spring Lamb from the Thoroughly Wild Meat Company which I seasoned and rubbed with butter and then simply roasted on a bed of rosemary, chopped onion and wet garlic, along with roasted asparagus from the Wye Valley and sweet, boiled Jersey Royals. For pudding, we devoured a strawberry and chocolate roulade and the heavenly Lemon Meringue Bombe from the Unconfidential Cook’s blog.


As we kissed the last of our 15 friends goodbye at 11pm, I was delighted that they’d come, thrilled they’d enjoyed themselves, but secretly excited that they’d left us with just enough lamb to fill a couple of pitas with the last scraps and some scrambled eggs and chopped mint for supper today.

Dolma In the 11 years I’ve lived in this part of London, I must have eaten enough stuffed vine leaves to stretch all the way along Green Lanes and back, from the Turkish part where they’re called dolma to the Greek end where they’re known as dolmades. But I’ve never made them. Seeing a vine press in the Turkish Food Centre pushed me over the edge from consumer to creator.

A 750g package of pickled vine leaves, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then drained, stalks cut off

125ml olive oil
2-3 onions, finely diced
50g pine nuts
250g short-grain rice
50g currants
1tbsp dried mint
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tbsps lemon salt *
250ml chicken stock
1 tomato, grated
A good-sized bunch of parsley, stalks removed then finely chopped
2tbsps finely chopped, fresh dill
1 small lemon, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper

*You can find tangalicious lemon salt in Mediterranean supermarkets. If you can’t get hold of any, use a teaspoon or so of ordinary salt and the juice of half a lemon.

Warm half of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the pine nuts and fry until they begin to turn golden. Add the rice and fry, stirring, for about 5 minutes until the rice is well coated in the oil. Add the currants, spices, dried mint and lemon salt, stir and pour in half of the chicken stock and simmer gently until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock and simmer again, stirring quite frequently, until it is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the grated tomato, fresh herbs and a good few grinds of black pepper. Cool.

Line a large, heavy casserole with a good layer of vine leaves (check through the ones you’ve soaked. They’ll inevitably be a few that are too small or torn – use those.) and a couple of slices of lemon.


Now, let the rolling extravaganza begin. Place a leaf in front of you, vein side up and the broadest part of the leaf facing you. Put a spoonful of the mixture about 1cm up from the base of the leaf. Fold over once, then fold in the sides and roll. I was daunted by warnings of not overfilling the leaves in case they split while cooking, so mine were a little thin. A think a good, rounded tablespoon of filling would be perfect. Line the base of the casserole with a layer of stuffed vine leaves, packing them in quite tightly. Place a couple of slices of lemon on top and make your next layer. Keep rolling and layering until you’ve used up all of your leaves and rice mixture. Pour over the rest of the olive oil and about 300ml of boiling water. Put a vine leaf press or a plate on top of your dolma to stop them bobbing around in the liquid and simmer very gently, covered, for about 35-45 minutes until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm or at room temperature.