Sunday, 26 September 2010

Veg boxing

Something I planned to do before I moved to Merseyside was order a weekly veg box from one of the many online suppliers of such things. But I'm lazy and I kept putting it off. Also, having a local greengrocer lets me buy my own choice of fresh, local produce without worrying about wastage.

However, I only need to look back at last winter's entries on this blog to be reminded that the random shortages at the greengrocer and at Morrisons supermarket to realise that I'm really, really not looking forward to doing that again at the end of this year.

Then Scott mentioned on Twitter that he'd also been thinking about it. Others replied to say that they'd only got good things to say about having a box delivered, so he signed up. His first box sounded very nice, and never one to let a bandwagon pass without jumping on it, I also signed up.

I got my first box on Friday, and I'm impressed. I got some lovely, crispy broadleaf spinach; some of the best looking tomatoes I've ever seen; crunchy, fresh celery; muddy potatoes; very very sweet onions - almost sweet enough to eat like an apple; earthy, fresh carrots and a beautiful Chinese cabbage.

There was an irresistible freshness to it all, making me realise how the supermarket food is picked, transported in a chilled van to a depot some miles away, stored for a day or so, transported in chilled lorry to a supermarket many many miles away, kept chilled out back of the supermarket for a day or so, then put on the shelves and sold as "fresh". The vegetables in this box had clearly been in the ground the day before. They still had mud on them, so hadn't been washed and chemically treated before undergoing a trek around the country. All-in-all, irresistible.

In fact, so much so that I made a quick salad of a tomato, some spinach leaves and a celery stick, with some salt and a dash of wine vinegar and crunched my way through it there and then - at 10 in the morning, no less.

So that was Saturday's meal decided: a big version of that little salad, while the veg is still alive and bright. I doubt there'll be any leftovers, but if there are, the cold weather brings notions of soup, so they'll go in a broth.

Next week it's chard, lettuce, more tomatoes, a gem squash (I've never cooked squash before - that'll be a fun challenge and this looks lovely) and more potatoes and onions. So it's another salad at the very least. I'm very happy.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The way to love butter is to realize that it might be lost

Okay, so I'm slightly misquoting GK Chesterton, but the point still holds: be careful with your butter ration. I've been being even more sparing than usual in order to save up butter for a fat-rich weekend meal with my herby potatoes as a main feature. Done properly, they take a lot of fat, so saving up is good.

I didn't count on how the smart the stupid dog could be. Our two Border Collies, Rosie and Jen, are chalk and cheese. Rosie is a typical Collie - obedient, smart, quick to anticipate and always ready to round up sheep, other dogs and the smaller of the humans and keep them penned.

Jen, however, is about as untypical a Collie as you can get. Not only will she not round anything up, she also won't obey, can't anticipate and, when she's not sure what to do, will roll on to her back to have her belly rubbed. If we got burgled, I'm sure that she could easily be persuaded to help pack up our belongings by a quick belly rub.

But some of this is an act. After a walk, the dogs sit in the utility room to dry off - they usually play in the sea for a bit. The utility room has a purpose-built gate across the entrance to keep them there and stop random shaking-off-of-water occurring anywhere else.

Jen dislikes unexpected loud noises - thunder, fireworks, the doorbell - and has learnt to hurdle the gate when such a noise occurs. She has no idea what to do after that and has usually forgotten the noise by the time she's over, but it's a good trick nonetheless. What CJBS hadn't anticipated was that, having learnt to jump the gate, she had actually learnt to jump the gate.

CJBS and the dogs got in soaked. He put them in the utility room and headed to the shower to warm up. I continued to work. My first clue something was wrong was the sound of something metallic falling in the kitchen. I got up, went downstairs as was confronted with a scene of devastation. Jen had leapt the gate, headed straight for the kitchen and, being greedy like all dogs, made her way along the counter tops dislodging anything edible on to the floor and eating it.

In those few seconds, she'd had all the remaining bread, foolishly not put back in the bread bin and, most importantly, my hoarded butter ration. 8oz of butter were gone, much of it to be found around her mouth. And she wasn't prepared to stop there, continuing to lick out the butter dish even as I dragged her away, finally stopping when her fear of my annoyance overcame her greediness. Then she ran for it, attempting to find somewhere to hide.

Oh, but I was annoyed. Annoyed with the dog, although she was just being a dog, annoyed with CJBS for walking away from the gate without realising the trap he'd set and annoyed with myself for only telling him four or five times that she was now willing to jump the gate unprovoked. Why oh why did I not nag him more about this? I should've been bringing it up at mealtimes and during favourite radio programmes, leaving him small notes and sending him text messages - you know, the standard "nag+" way of getting a man to remember stuff.

The butter, once gone, could not be replaced until the next rationing week, but CJBS has never let the rules of this project get in the way of a happy life and he bought me butter anyway. So now I had butter in but couldn't use it until next week. Worse than that, rather than buying the cheap, tasty and multi-useful butter I get, he "treated" me to some expensive branded butter that has no taste and is only good for cooking. So my hot buttered toast treat was not just gone for a couple of days, it was gone for the entire next week as well.

And he didn't understand why I didn't thank him, so I had him making hurt puppy-dog eyes at me every time I mentioned it. Which, frankly, I did a lot.

That was last week (I'm still not over it) but today, once I've waited in between 9am and 7pm for a delivery (it'll come at 6.59pm, unless I pop out before then and come home to a card saying "we called but you were out, please drive to Plymouth to collect your parcel") I'll finally get my new, edible fat ration. And then I shall eat hot buttered toast in front of him and look smug, whilst he will have forgotten the whole incident.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Read all about it

There has been a decidedly autumnal nip in the air in the last few days. Summer is clearly drawing to a close and with it, no doubt, my happy three or four months of salads.

In the last few weeks, there's been a real choice of home-grown goodies. In spring, I was falling upon the odd limp British lettuce with joy at having something green. In August, I was choosing from 3 types of British lettuce. Slowly, this is sliding back to just the one. Soon, lettuce will go off the menu entirely.

So it's time to start planning for the limited menus and random shortages that made last winter so hard to deal with. Luckily, I've got help.

On my monthly trip into the office in Harrogate, one of my colleagues had found her mother's cookbooks in the back of a cupboard. One, entitled something like 'Eat What You Grow' didn't sound promising but was actually full of the most tempting winter recipes. The other, a wartime cookbook sponsored by Stork margarine, had some the staples I was already used to, enlivened by putting a spoonful of Stork in, on or over the food before, during or after cooking. Why are these sponsored cookbooks always so naked in their attempt to get you to heap great big piles of their wares into your cooking? Even vegetables, getting their usual British "quick boil" of 15 minutes or so, would be improved by having Stork boiling in the pan with them, as well as melting over the top of them at the end. And this awful substance, Stork, was rationed!

I took photocopies from both books of likely looking recipes. The Stork book had a chapter at the beginning that I loved: what to do with your cooking when the air raid sirens sounded (basically, turn off the gas and come back to it after the All Clear, when it will either need further cooking or reheating).

A day later and we were in that London, to have dinner with Jonathan and Kate to celebrate our up-coming first wedding anniversary. It was also a good opportunity to have an expensive shop for non-rationed goods at Fortnum and Mason's in Piccadilly - something possible even during the war, as the shop specialises in dressings and sauces and side-of-plate extras that were never rationed and rarely subject to shortages, but entirely useless with nothing to put them on. You can't make a main meal from Ginger Confit and Hungarian Paprika, try as you might.

It was also a good opportunity to nose around a museum, something we could both pass our lives doing, me at speed, CJBS as slowly as possible. So we went to the National Portrait Gallery at St Martin-in-the-Field in order to look for and at people I'd heard of. It was very interesting and I think we'll go back to look at the people I haven't heard of in the older galleries.

CJBS cannot visit any building with a cafe in it without having a cup of tea, so we stopped off in the basement cafe to be charged a small fortune for some warm water and a bag of assorted leaves. This meant - clever, clever curators - going past the NPG's bookshop. I can't resist a bookshop. Ever. So we paid an even greater fortune for a pile of books that we then had to lug back up north with us.

Still, one of the books was the Eat What You Grow book, in the form of a reprint of the 1941 edition "Food Facts for the Kitchen Front". This is a good little book, much better than the Marguerite Patten stodge I've been living with for the past year.

It starts with a useful, if not entirely accurate, chapter on how you need at least one item from each of three "food value groups" in each meal: energy foods (fat, sugar, potatoes); body-building foods (meat, fish, dairy, wholemeal grains, potatoes); and protective foods (vegetables, wholemeal grains, potatoes). Yes, there's something of a tuber-based theme here.

It then goes on to explain calories, proteins, vitamins and mineral salts - suggesting that half a pound of potatoes and a quarter of a pound of cabbage would get you your day's Vitamin C (and sod all else, I'd wager).

The good bit of the book - the rest of it, in fact - then follows. Alphabetically, with no nonsense, it runs through each vegetable and presents some ration-friendly and (surprisingly) delicious-sounding ways of cooking it. The it does the same for potatoes, salads and herbs; then on to fish (still all white fish, with a detour into trout), meat and meat-substitution and nine pages of quick soups; bread, fruit and quick sauces to disguise poor menus; and finishes with a chapter on slow cooking. And it has an index! (The number of cookbooks without a useful index is disturbing; those chefs need to stay in more.)

Artichoke soup! Hot tomato salad! Eggless mayonnaise! The latter made with icing sugar... ugh. Sheep's Head Roll! (no, no, no). Despite the odd misfire (liver dumplings, anybody?), this book will be keeping us fed as winter draws on.

Meanwhile, by the way, I catered for TWO dinner parties the weekend before London. It was ration-stretching (in other words, it required a fiddle, assuming that I was getting coupons and points from the guests; although in reality, that was exactly what people did when entertaining during the war) but nobody noticed that they were getting rationed fare.

The first meal, a chicken salad, was made by slow-cooking chicken fillets in mustard and honey, so took no precious fat. Dessert was Eton Mess, but I saved on sugar by buying a bottle of cherry beer and reducing it to a sauce.

The second meal was roast lamb. That really was ration-stretching, using up the best part of a month's saved meat rations from both of us for a small joint. Plenty of vegetables, gravy and mint sauce hid that the meat wasn't in huge quantities. Still, I managed to get three days of further meals out of the scraps of meat left on the bone, then made stock from the bone itself, which became two days of French onion soup. Finally, the bone went into the dogs, who are grateful even now.

Ultimately, I made my dinner party rations stretch over 17 individual meals and two dogs without feeling any shortages. Of course, I'm now meatless for the next two weeks but this is survivable, thanks to my Food Facts book and the last days of the salad.