The food of love

If you believe everything you read, St Valentine’s Day is all about candle-lit dinners in restaurants full of couples gazing lovingly at each other while the singletons sit at home, weeping into boxes of chocolates.

Well, not in our house it’s not. The last time we went out for dinner on Valentine’s Day it was because I needed to review a restaurant and that was the only night they could get us in. That in itself should have been a sign. The food was absolutely appalling and the service was bizarre, but we had a hysterically good time laughing at how bad it was and how desperately unhappy all our fellow diners looked.

I’m not a Valentine’s Day denier by any means, but I do think there are better ways to show someone your undying love and devotion than a slightly desperate night out.

If cooking is an act of love – among other things – then surely the greatest thing you can do on Valentine’s Day is cook something that the recipient will really love. But what if that happens to be something that you can’t stand?

After more than a decade of eating together, my beloved and I still don’t see eye to eye on some things. When I think about it, the list of foods we agree on is small: Chardonnay, strongly-flavoured hard cheeses, scallops, free-range chicken and eggs, good bread, olives, sriracha sauce, dark chocolate, champagne. Of course, we still debate the various merits of these things – and what he thinks is good bread might not match my criteria – but these are not insurmountable differences. It’s not like he likes his steak well-done. That would be a deal-breaker for sure.

I love quinoa and barley and other so-ancient-they’re-modern grains; he thinks brown rice is fit for animals. I love carrot cake and inch-thick cream cheese frosting; he’d rather go hungry than eat a slice. He doesn’t like watermelon or cucumbers, claiming they taste ‘like dirt’. He eschews butter (butter!) for olive-oil spread on his toast. He says Marmite is the answer to life’s woes; I say I haven’t met a piece of bread that can’t be improved by peanut butter. He loves ice cream cones and the way they taste of communion wafers; I think he needs counselling. 

He doesn’t like chicken livers, lentils or salmon; I just eat them when he goes out. He is happy to spend a lot of time (and money) searching for his favourite craft beer, good olives, the freshest fish and whatever strange ingredient I might have asked him to look for. This is a quality that cannot be underrated.

And so I’ve learned to live with the fact that he doesn’t believe walnuts belong on the top of afghans. It’s fine that he doesn’t share my love of soft, stinky cheeses. I wear my ‘I told you so’ face when he feels guilty for binge-eating disgusting chicken-flavoured crisps, but that’s as far as it goes.

But the thing I can’t get over, the thing that really makes me wonder if we belong together, is his love of white pepper. The smell of white pepper makes me feel ill. To me, it smells of boarding school, and hospitals, and rest homes. White pepper smells like old people. It is the smell of death, ground into tiny, sneeze-inducing particles.

To my beloved, the scent of white peppercorns takes him back to his childhood, to Saturday lunches of sausages and chips at his grandparents’ place. To him, that slightly medicinal smell recalls a time when there was nothing to do but ride his bike, play backyard cricket and catch whitebait. Even talking about it makes his face light up. Last week, when we were out of black peppercorns, I found a box of white ones at the back of the cupboard. When he realised I’d put them in the pepper grinder he looked like he’d won the lottery. 

I love that he loves to eat. I get frustrated by the fact that he doesn’t like some of the things that I love to eat, but I would rather we ate together and had a robust discussion about whether the steak was rare enough than not. If he has to put white pepper on it, then I guess that’s the price of love.

I wish you all a very happy Valentines Day x

Random recipe: Russian Salad

It’s not often that I reach for the vodka bottle on a Sunday lunchtime, but when you’re making an iconic Soviet salad in a half-functioning kitchen, needs must. When that salad is a melange of cooked vegetables and hard-boiled egg bound with a sour cream-enriched mayonnaise – and you’re making it while your daughter clamours for her lunch and your husband is attacking the counter-top with a hack-saw – you’re more than justified to pour yourself a large glass. At least, that was my excuse.

Actually, I blame Dom of Belleau Kitchen for driving me to drink. This month’s Random Recipe challenge asked us to cook something from a Christmas present cookbook – and since I didn’t get any cookbooks for Christmas (sob!) I chose the Salat Olivier described in Anya von Bremzen’s memoir, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking.

Salat Olivier Russian Salad

If you have even a slight interest in food, family, social history and the absolute craziness involved in growing up in Soviet Moscow, this is a must-read. Von Bremzen’s own story of growing up in a communal apartment in Moscow (she and her mother fled to the US in 1974, when she was 10) is swept up in the epic history of 20th century Russia. It’s the sort of book that you want to read out loud to other people – like Heston Blumenthal’s quote on the front of my copy says, it’s ‘heartbreakingly poignant and laugh-out-loud funny’.

He forgot to add that it also has recipes – and the Soviet party classic, Salat Olivier, is one of them. First invented by a French chef ‘who wowed 1860s Moscow’ with an over-the-top platter of grouse, tongue and crayfish tails with potatoes, cornichons and a secret Provencal sauce, it morphed over the years into a rather more proletarian combination of vegetables and chicken bound together with mass-produced mayonnaise. Now can you see why I was reaching for the vodka?

Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking By Anya von Bremzen

Salat Olivier
I took some liberties with Anya’s recipe, leaving out the suggested white crabmeat or crabsticks that her mother usually used in place of the traditional poached chicken or beef. I also used homemade mayonnaise rather than Hellmann’s and lightly cooked frozen peas rather than the tinned variety. Anya’s mother Larisa, who plays a key role in the book, insists that the key to success is chopping everything into very fine dice.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll make it again – that diced potato, carrot and pea mixture reminded me too much of boarding school mixed frozen vegetables – but the tangy, creamy dressing was eat-out-of-the-bowl gorgeous.

3 large waxy potatoes, cooked, peeled and diced
2 medium carrots, peeled, cooked and diced
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
3 large gherkins, diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
4 spring onions, finely sliced (white parts and some green)
1 1/2 cups peas, blanched and drained
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
4 Tbsp dill, finely chopped
salt and pepper

250 ml mayonnaise
80 ml sour cream
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp white vinegar
salt and pepper

Put all the salad ingredients in a large bowl and stir together gently. Season well with salt and pepper.
To make the dressing, put all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together until well blended. Taste and adjust the seasoning – you want it to be quite tangy and zesty.
Fold about two-thirds of the dressing through the salad – add more if necessary – and transfer to a cut-crystal bowl to serve. Serves six as a side dish. Vodka optional, but advised.

Christmas confetti salad

There have been two unexpected spin-offs from my post about delegating when entertaining over the festive season. First, two of the guests we were expecting for dinner on Saturday night cancelled their appearance. They claimed to be stuck in New York and unable to get back, but I have my doubts. Was it the email I sent suggesting they bring something?

Then, a few days ago, my mother-in-law sent me an email about Christmas. In the middle of what my colleague calls ‘a compliment sandwich’ (that’s when you disarm someone by saying something nice, stick the knife in, then say something nice again) she cleverly outsourced the cooking of the turkey and the dreaming up of some salad ideas. To me.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I’d been outplayed. Friends, I have so much to learn. But, after a weekend of thinking deeply about what to make, I’ve come up with something fresh, festive and extremely easy. Now I just have to delegate the making of it to my father-in-law.

Christmas Confetti Salad With Peppers And Pomegranate Seeds Recipe/Image Lucy Corry/The Kitchenmaid

Christmas Confetti Salad
Making this salad is the sort of job you can give someone who walks into the kitchen and says ‘what can I do to help?’ – on the basis that a) they have basic knife skills and b) you have delegated out all the other jobs, like washing dishes, setting the table and corralling the children/elderly relatives. As long as you’re not having to do all those other things, or have had a glass of festive bubbles, it’s quite soothing to stand still and do a bit of chopping. It’s great with ham and turkey and tastes great the next day when you need something cold and refreshing to eat. You could also pile little mounds of it into avocado halves for a appropriately red, white and green starter.

2 pomegranates
2 red peppers
1 small red onion
4-6 small radishes
half a telegraph cucumber
a small bunch of mint, finely shredded

a clove of garlic, smashed
a good pinch of salt
a pinch of sugar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp sumac

First, make the dressing. Crush the garlic and salt together with a knife until it forms a paste. Scrape this into a small screwtop jar, then add the lemon juice, sugar and sumac. Shake together until well mixed, then add the oil and shake again. Taste for sharpness – add more oil or lemon juice as necessary. Set aside.
Cut the pomegranates in half and scoop out the seeds. The Ottolenghi-endorsed way to do this is to bang them with a wooden spoon, but I find this squirts juice everywhere. My preferred method is to winkle the seeds out with a knife.
Chop the rest of the vegetables into pomegranate seed-sized dice. Tip everything into a bowl. Pour over the dressing, scatter over the shredded mint and stir gently to combine. Serves eight as a side dish.

For more herby, salad-y goodness, you might like to check out Karen’s Cooking With Herbs round-up for December. If there’s ever a time of year to eat your greens, this is it!

Cooking with Herbs

Do you delegate out parts of your Christmas dinner preparations, or do you prefer to be in sole charge?

Middle class coleslaw

I am a terrible snob. I’m not proud of this shortcoming but since there’s no point in denying it so I may as well be bold. I know I am a terrible snob because I once told someone that his mother made white trash coleslaw. In my defence, he said (and did) much, much worse to me. And that coleslaw was disgusting – tinned pineapple, cabbage, carrot and condensed milk dressing – so I don’t think I was completely out of line. Plus, his mother used to look at me like I was something she’d trodden on. Harrumph.

Anyway, that’s all ancient history and I’m over it, truly. But earlier this evening, when rustling up an impromptu salad to go with the remainder of Monday night’s roast chicken, I realised I was essentially making coleslaw too. Not posh coleslaw, not even an exotic Asian-ish one. Is there such a thing as a middle class coleslaw? I think I’ve just made it. But in good news, this is a coleslaw that transcends all barriers. Young, old, rich, poor, we can all eat and enjoy with impunity. But if you even think of putting tinned pineapple in it you deserve to choke on each mouthful.

So good to eat, so hard to make look good to eat!

Middle class coleslaw
This is the sort of thing you whip up in 10 minutes while wearing your running kit and making increasingly firm requests to your daughter to get out of the bath so you can get into it. Quantities are approximate – this much makes enough for four. Any leftovers are good in a lunchbox the next day.

1/4 of a cabbage – Savoy if you’re posh, ordinary if not, shredded
2 carrots, peeled, then grated
2 ribs of celery, destringed, then finely chopped
100g tasty cheddar, grated
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)

For the dressing:
1 clove garlic, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
2 tsp Dijon mustard
a good pinch of sugar
4 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
8 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Make the dressing first. Put the smashed garlic, mustard, sugar and vinegar in a screw top jar. Screw on the lid and shake well. Add the oil, reattach the lid and shake again until emulsified. Taste – add a little more oil or vinegar to suit. It should be slightly on the sharp side to balance out the cheese.
Put the cabbage, carrot, celery and cheese in a salad bowl and toss together to mix. Sprinkle over the caraway seeds, if using, then pour over two-thirds of the dressing. Toss well, adding more dressing if necessary. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until needed.

Are you a food snob? Does it get you into trouble?

A chic French carrot salad

When it comes to seemingly effortless chic, you have to hand it to the French. It’s evident in what they wear, how they act, what they eat – whatever you think of their politics or their pop music, they’ve got it all over the rest of us. Only the French could make shredded carrots and vinaigrette seem chic, n’est-ce pas?

Last month in Paris (see how I just slipped that in there?) I fell back in love with carrottes rapees – which must be the simplest of all salads. It doesn’t sound much on paper – just shredded carrots dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette – but it’s sweet, crunchy and refreshing, just the thing for a hot summer night. It’s about 20 degrees cooler here than it was in Paris in late July, but I made a batch of this up the other day and can report that it’s equally good in the southern hemisphere. The views aren’t quite the same, but you can’t have everything.

Chic carrot salad
A bowl of this manages to be quite satisfying, which is probably handy if you’re having a French Women Don’t Get Fat sort of moment. It’s a good accompaniment to fish, or rice, or rolled into sushi, or tucked into a peanut butter and alfalfa sprout sandwich. Just one thing – I think it’s best made with carrots shredded in a food processor or with a mandolin. Using a box grater doesn’t quite yield the same result – like having a Chanel couture dress made in a factory.

4 medium carrots, peeled and finely shredded
For the dressing:
1 clove garlic, crushed
a good pinch of salt
4 Tbsp lemon juice
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp honey
8 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

To make the dressing, put the garlic, salt and lemon juice in a lidded jar (I use an old Maille mustard jar for extra authenticity – and because we have dozens of them) and shake well. Add the mustard and honey and shake again. Add the oil and shake until it has emulsified. Taste – it should be slightly sharp.
Put the shredded carrots in a large bowl and pour over half the dressing. Toss gently, then drizzle over the rest if you think it needs it. The carrots should be damp, not drowned.
Serve at once or keep well covered in the fridge for a day.

What’s your favourite French food? Nul point for whoever says ‘French fries’…