Sunday, 8 May 2022

Cookery Book: The Little Library Year

Cooking my way through my recipe books began as a monthly challenge, a way to find some different family meals and to make sure I really got the most out of my large and constantly (happily, determinedly) growing collection of cookery books. If you click on the "Cookery Calendar Challenge" label to the right you can see all the posts over the years. Now the thought of having time to do this kind of cooking and blog post monthly is laughable, but it has instead become a school holiday indulgence, a relaxed pleasure to enjoy when I have one or two weeks off work and some free time at home to potter away in the kitchen. 

This post's book was utterly perfect for that: The Little Library Year by Kate Young. Last August I blogged about cooking from her first book, called the Little Library Cookbook, and her second book has the same literary inspiration but is instead organised seasonally. As well as recipes inspired by meals in books, she offers up wonderful lists of suggested titles and authors for different points in the year, or different moods, at the start of each section. The author's passion for reading is evident in every page - even the endpapers contain photographs of her bookshelves.

Let's work through the recipes seasonally. From the "Winter Pickles section of the chapter entitled The Long Winter Nights I made piccalilli, a mustard-based chutney. Preserving is not something I would usually do in the spring but John's birthday is coming up and he loves piccalilli, it is something we always keep in the fridge, and so I thought I would make him some. 

You begin by dicing shallots, green beans, cucumber, cauliflower and carrots before covering them in salt and leaving them overnight to draw out as much of the moisture as possible, and to begin the pickling.

After a thorough rinse, you mix together vinegar and spices (including the mustard powder and turmeric that gives piccalilli its characteristically yellow glow) then simmer the vegetables in the vinegar for ten minutes.

Then you remove the vegetables, add sugar and cornflour to the vinegar and simmer until it is thick, before putting the vegetables back in and spooning into jars.

I have never made a pickle like this. I usually make chutney, where everything is simmered together until it is quite soft, so I'm keen to see what this is like. It is currently hidden away in a dark place until John's birthday in June when we can try it.

From the "Comfort Food" section of The first signs of spring, I made jambalaya. As soon as I saw this recipe, a mixture of rice, chorizo, peppers and prawns, I knew that this would be something everyone would enjoy, and it was. Fragrant and spicy, and with a bright squeeze of lemon over the top before serving, this was delicious.

From the same chapter, I baked peanut butter, honey and banana loaf.  This was definitely at the banana bread end of the spectrum of banana based baking, dense and heavy with fruit, whereas the banana chocolate loaf cake I often make feels lighter, more cake-y.

This is not a criticism though; the loaf sunk as soon as it was out of the oven and was not going to win any prizes for appearance, the peanut butter and honey was an excellent addition to this much-baked cake. 

Moving into the chapter entitled Spring in abundance, I baked "omelette aux fines herbs" or omelette with chopped fresh herbs. I had just been to the garden centre and stocked up my collection of fresh herbs for the garden, so used a mixture of chives, parsley, thyme - whatever was fresh and green and growing. 

Cooked in moments, you tip the herbs on top of the setting eggs then flip onto the plate. Still runny in the middle, this reminded me how much I love omelettes. So simple, so perfect.

From the same chapter, Croque Monsieur. I love a Croque Monsieur and have happy memories of eating them in cafes on holiday in France. This is basically a toasted ham and cheese sandwich (traditionally made with Gruyere although I used cheddar as we always have that in the fridge) covered in cheese sauce and then grilled until the sauce is bubbling and brown.

I made it on a cold, grey day in the Easter holidays for lunch for us all, and it was the best kind of comfort food: hot, crunchy, gooey, just the right amount of stodgy, and full of the salty smokiness of the ham and cheese.

Skipping through the summer section (which was lovely, just nothing I especially fancied cooking), I came to sardine, chilli and breadcrumb pasta in the chapter When the leaves start to turn.

It's a store-cupboard dinner of tinned sardines, spaghetti, chilli, capers and shallots which appealed to me straight away as I love all the ingredients and I love store cupboard dinners. You begin by browning the breadcrumbs in the oil from the sardines, before frying the shallots (or onions in this house because who even buys shallots?) with the chilli, adding the sardines and capers to warm through, then tossing it all through with the pasta, mixing with a little pasta water. 

Finally, you scatter with the toasted breadcrumbs and parsley. It was a bit of a disappointment, and no-one was more disappointed than me as I was really looking forward to this dish. The flavours were not quite strong enough - I think smoked haddock would worked better, or perhaps the addition of anchovies.

The As the days grow short chapter gave us Boeuf en Daube a la Provencale, from Woolf's To the Lighthouse, of course. I confidently told John we were having this for dinner one day, before actually reading the recipe through and realising that it was a three day affair. None of the steps are difficult, but you need to allow time for flavours to mingle. You begin by marinating the beef and vegetables in red wine and herbs for six hours - I did this overnight.

Cooking time is five hours so at lunchtime I put the marinated mixture into a pot with mushrooms, tinned tomatoes and bacon to cook slowly for three hours.

After this time, you add olives, anchovies, capers, garlic, olive oil and a little red wine vinegar before returning to the oven for another two hours. After the final cooking, you are supposed to leave it to cool overnight before re-heating the next day to improve the flavours. We ate it that night for dinner with some leftover potatoes dauphinoise I had in the freezer and lots of green vegetables, and it was delicious. Well worth the slow cooking time.

Finally, I made Swedish meatballs. I love a plate of IKEA meatballs as much as the next person but I have never tried to make them. They are just a mixture of beef and pork mince with lots of spices, particularly allspice which gives them their distinctive flavour. The sauce is made from a roux cooked with beef stock, cream, Worcestershire sauce and mustard, and it is really good. I was supposed to serve this with boiled potatoes, but I over boiled them so they became mashed potatoes. This was really easy and good: four clean plates, and lots of leftover meatballs in the freezer to defrost and cook on another day. 

Monday, 2 May 2022

A London Minibreak

Hello! I hope you are enjoying the long bank holiday weekend.  It has given me time to do all manner of jobs, not least go through all my London photos from the Easter holidays. This Easter we had planned to visit Berlin for a short break but, for various reasons, postponed the trip. We found we had three nights with a dog sitter (dog sitters and kennels have proved extremely hard to come by lately!) and so decided on last minute trip to London. Now, we only live about 70 miles from London, one hour twenty minutes on the fast train, and so when we visit we go for the day. We didn't always go that much, but after lockdown I noticed that we were going much more frequently - for days out, birthday celebrations, me on my own to meet friends - and I think we went up four times between August and December last year. An unconscious desire to make the most of lifted restrictions, I am sure. 

So we booked a hotel and then discussed everything we would like to try and see/do, then  booked everything we wanted to see/do - there was a lot, and covid has meant that so much has to be pre-booked now.  We each chose three things we hoped to do and our requirements were as follows:

Bella: eat ramen, go shopping, go somewhere with "amazing views" - we were aiming for the Sky Garden but they had no availability to visit the viewing platform on the days we were there sadly. 
Angus: travel on a boat on the Thames, eat a really good burger, walk around Westminster and Whitehall.
John: visit the Churchill War Rooms, eat at Borough Market, look around the shops at Seven Dials.

It is of course impossible to please everyone but the children are old enough now to have input into what they would like to do on holidays and also old enough to understand why something can't be accommodated. Ok, now would you like to come with me on a short spring minibreak to London?

We stayed in the Novotel Blackfriars which was in a great location for us, very close to Waterloo Station, the Tate Modern and Borough Market near the South Bank. As soon as we arrived and checked in, we walked straight to Borough Market for lunch. 

Borough market is a huge food market under the arches of roads and train lines near London Bridge, selling both produce and freshly cooked food. 

You have to queue but it is worth it, and there's lots to look at while you wait. Angus had his "smash patty"burger, where a large meatball is "smashed" with an iron weight on the griddle into an irregular shaped burger (and he says the best one he ever ate, and he's eaten quite a lot to be fair), while Bella, John and I shared some friend chicken and macaroni cheese, all completely delicious.

Then a ten minute walk to the Tate Modern which the children had not been to before. Bella said on Matisse's The Snail, below, "I don't understand why it's meant to be so good or why it's in a gallery?" We had a good chat about how you don't have to like or even appreciate all art, but how it's a good talking point. 

By far my favourite exhibit was Mark Dion's Thames Dig, in which hundreds of treasures dug up from the muddy shores of the Thames River are displayed in wide, shallow drawers in a huge dresser. It was fascinating and I could have stared at it for ours.

After that we walked along the South Bank for a while, stopping for a drink at a pub with a view of the river, then had some dinner at a restaurant called Tonkotsu. Bella got her ramen - in fact, we all had ramen - and it was very good.

Before heading back to the hotel, we walked back up to the Tate Modern and over Millennium Bridge, the footbridge that links Bankside, where the Tate Modern is, to St Pauls Cathedral and The City on the other side. It was cold but the setting sun was pretty. We are usually on a train home when the sun sets in London so it was really nice to be out and about in the evening. 

The next morning, we were up and out early and the weather was glorious so we decided to walk rather than take the underground. It was the most perfect spring weather with a warm sun and a light, cool breeze. We walked over Waterloo Bridge, stopping for coffee and pastries on the way, and towards Whitehall. 

We needed to be at the Churchill War Rooms for ten, but had plenty of time to explore St James's Park before it opened. 

I especially loved the little, enclosed garden surrounding "Duck Island Cottage", the once-home of the bird keeper of the park. It is no longer inhabited but the contrast of cottage garden with such grand, regal park planting made me smile. 

The Churchill War Rooms museum is really good (and I am not especially interested in either Churchill or WW2), housed in what were the underground war rooms during WW2. For me though, it's just fascinating to wander around Whitehall. 

We did walk past 10 Downing Street and Angus was most disappointed to find that you can hardly even see the front door - a real anti-climax. Watching demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament did make up for this a bit though. 

After burritos for lunch near Trafalgar Square, we made our way down to the Embankment River Taxi stop.

The boat took us perfectly to our next destination: Tower Bridge. 

We had booked a family ticket to walk up and over the top of the bridge - it is fun and a good location for views all around this part of London. I have always wondered what is inside the towers either side of the bridge, behind those windows. Well, it's mostly stairs and the occasional toilet and store cupboard.

The top half of the bridge is fun, with sections of glass floor, coin press machines (Angus loves these) and uninterrupted views.

Once we'd reached the other side, we walked back to our hotel, passing HMS Belfast (definitely something John and Angus would enjoy visiting another day) 

then stopping off for ice cream in Borough Market on our way.

Dinner at the Big Easy (which is a kind of US-style barbecue place) was delicous and a lot of fun, it has a good atmosphere and a mix of locals, families, tourists, people on their way home from work. Again, being out and about in London in the evening was fun as we watched the sun set and the lights come on. 

The following day was sunny and warm again, as we walked along the South Bank towards our next destination: The British Museum.

While the main body of the British Museum is free, you do have to book and pay for some of their temporary exhibitions, and the World of Stonehenge exhibit was worth every penny, with an amazing insight into how people lived during that era.

It was too gloomy to take many photos and I was too busy poring over all the displays anyway.

This was my first visit to the British Museum, and it did rather take my breath away when I walked through the doors into the huge Great Court

We did spend quite a while inside, looking at the Egyptians and Ancient Greeks, but it was busy. After hotdogs eaten in the museum courtyard outside for lunch, we headed to Oxford Street and Regent Street for shopping.

Angus thoroughly enjoyed playing a driving game in some specially modified vehicle in the (very swish) Microsoft store. Obviously he didn't buy anything but came out of the store wearing a fancy lanyard and feeling very pleased with himself. Bella thoroughly enjoyed looking in her favourite shops (which seemed to stock a lot of crochet - this is apparently in fashion at the moment) I dragged everyone into Liberty London department store.

I didn't buy anything but I did have a very lovely browse.

We walked back to the hotel very slowly via more shops in Seven Dials and a drink in a pub. I love London pubs. After a little rest at the hotel (we had walked a lot!) we had pizza with a view for dinner that night.

Finally, Friday morning, our last day. We had tickets booked for the 2.00pm train home and a morning to make the most of.

We were all pretty tired so headed to Waterstone's Picadilly and spent a lovely couple of hours browsing. 

The Piccadilly branch is in a beautiful art deco building (I think it was once a department store) and is Europe's largest bookshop. It's browsing heaven.

I made a beeline for the cookery section where I gathered a pile of books and headed to the sofa. I sat there for as long as I could, flicking through each one in a way that you just can't with online shopping, before I made my decision (this one). The children had saved thier pocket money and Easter money and we all came out with bags. I am constantly thankful that the children enjoy reading and appreciate books as much as John and I do.

After picking up sandwiches from Pret a Manger we ate an impromptu picnic on a bench in St James's Park, before wending our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and then on to Waterloo station to catch the train home.

Despite living relatively close to London, it is not a city I actually know that well, and I go there very much as a tourist every time. But staying there - even centrally - and doing so much walking rather than catching the tube, as I often do, gave me much more of a sense of how the central parts of the city connect to each other. 

It was lovely. We had a really great time, and I think we all managed to see or do what we had hoped. We are planning to return in early June to go back up The Shard, as it was so foggy when we went in December last year that we could not see a thing! Something to look forward to.