Fried barley and wild garlic, to eat at your leisure

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prepping the barley, ready for frying

My love for barley began in two ways: a can of Heinz scotch broth which was packed with its chewy little nubbins in an otherwise forgettable soup, and Robinsons Barley Water which I personally believe to be the best way to soothe a fulminant UTI. No wonder tennis players, flinging themselves around on a hot court, drink gallons of the stuff.

I’ve found a better way of eating what is such a versatile little grain and this technique for fried barley will give you a fine carby foil for whatever fish, meat or vegetable you care to accompany it with. Barley is a wonderful carrier for flavour and accommodates reheating beautifully and I try to keep a cooked bowlful of the stuff in the fridge at all times to mix into salads, soups and stews or eat as is, with butter, black pepper and salt.

There are two forms of barley: hulled and pearl. Hulled barley has had the tough, inedible outermost hull removed and retains its bran and endosperm layer, resulting in a chewier grain when cooked. Pearl barley has been polished to remove the bran, leaving a pale and cream-coloured grain which cooks more swiftly. Hulled grain is the more nutritious of the two types because it has retained its fibre but pearl barley releases its starch into any liquid it is cooked within, making it a good thickener for soups and risottos.

The recipe that follows is more advice than prescriptive guide and serves around four or me, over several meals.

Make up 1½ litres of chicken (or vegetable) stock and bring to the boil in a large pan. Pour in 300g of pearl barley and cook at a simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley has doubled in size, becoming swollen and a little fluffy around the edges. Drain, place into a bowl and leave to cool.

Shred two large handfuls of wild garlic and mix into the barley. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice over the wild garlic and grains. Add some fresh thyme sprigs too.Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. In the photo above, I have chucked in some leftover salad leaves which wilt beautifully in the heat of the pan but this is by no means compulsory.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet and when it is hot, add the pearl barley and stir fry in two stages unless your skillet is REALLY big. You want it to develop a bit of a crust underneath so don’t toss it too much. Keep on frying until it is golden and a little caught around the edges. Serve whatever way you like; it keeps for three or four days too.

 

A quick autumnal tray-roast

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It’s time for a roots revival after a summer of lightly-prepared frilly green things and fruit which can be eaten straight from the tree or bush. Some root veg such as carrots, celeriac and daikon can be consumed all year round but as the nights draw in and the frosts nip faces and the newly dug-over clods of the vegetable patch, the thicker and less delicate roots come to our attention as their starches are converted to sugar by the cold, making them perfect for roasting and slow braising. Winter carrots, parsnips, swede, celeriac and scorzonera stand up well to such treatments when their summer cousins might not.

This is an easy way to cook parsnips, either on their own or with the hasselback potatoes shown in the photograph which used up the last of our late-summer potatoes from the allotment. They’re par-boiled then sliced and basted with a marinade made up of chile-honey, maple syrup, salt and olive oil. A quick roast in the oven until golden and you’re good to go. The hasselback technique originated in Sweden and is named after Hasselbacken, a Stockholm restaurant which first served these potatoes in the 17th century. By slicing potatoes and root vegetables like parsnips only part of the way through along their length, you end up with a soft creamy centre with lots of caught, crunchy edges and a super-luxe roasted root vegetable which tends not to dry out even hours after cooking.

So to make them….

Wash as many parsnips as you need and peel them if the skins seem super-tough, leaving them in one whole piece. I’ve left the skin on here as I like the extra goodness. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and then place the parsnips in a pan of salted boiling water and par-boil until the tip of a knife just pierces their skin. Drain them well and place in a shallow roasting pan which has been coated with olive oil. Using a sharp knife, make shallow cuts widthways across each parsnip down its length, taking care to not cut them all the way through. Baste them with more olive oil and roast for fifteen minutes then remove them from the oven.

For every kilo of parsnips you will need to mix one tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and a small pinch of chile powder and sea salt in a bowl. Once this is mixed, brush it over the entire surface of each parsnip and then place them back in the oven. Keep an eye on them because you don’t want them to burn and roast for another 25-30 mins or so until darkly golden and caught in places. Don’t worry if they catch a bit, it adds to their flavour.

If you want to make the hasselback potatoes, it is basically the same process without the honey-chile and maple syrup baste. Par boil your potatoes in salted water and drain then after they are cool to the touch, slice them widthways part of the way through. Baste with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, then roast in the oven at 180C until they are golden. You may need to baste them with more oil as they cook.

Back to my [French] roots

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Pêche à Pied | Plage de Mousterlin Finistère| Pierre Guezingar /Flickr

In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.

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I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.

It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.

So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.

These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.

The same  need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.

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Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down

| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.

Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.

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So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.

Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples.  Its authorJudith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.

Some thoughts on baking with citrus

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The space
between the leaves
is full of sunlight.

At the sharp edge,
no longer crowded
with past and future,

fruits ripen on the lemon tree
in the silence
rising
from the morning air.
–   Ok-Koo Kand Grosjean, Garden

That sunlit space is where all citrus fruits reside, a place of sharp, bright awakening and the way we use them in cooking is a tale of cultural derring-do: even the simplest of recipes can possess multiple cultural references, reflecting the complex culinary genealogy of these fruits. Although I use them frequently in savoury meals, today I want to gather together some of my favourite citrus recipes. And if a pudding course redolent with lemon and its citrus cousins is not enough, then precede it with chicken, spaghetti and circles of calamarata pasta dressed with lemon, garlic, parsley and clams, turnip tops and roasted cauliflower .

 One of my favourites is a recipe for a grapefruit yoghurt cake which possesses a convoluted culinary genealogy by way of Ina Garten and Deb Perelman and it is Deb who tinkers with Ina’s original lemon pound cake — and tries to lighten it up. Butter and buttermilk are replaced by oil -and the aforementioned yoghurt – in a nod to the sainted lighter living and not something I usually subscribe to, being of the school of eat a little of whatever the hell you fancy. Anyway, butter is not bad for you. This is not substitution in order to reduce calories or fat but to adjust texture:  the yoghurt adds flavour whilst the oil ensures the crumb retains dampness even when the cake is a few days old.

When we bake with citrus fruits, their sharp, grassy, rimey and clear flavours cut through the melding tendencies of eggs, butter and other oils like Flashman. Grapefruit lends a more rounded, burnished flavour than the lemon and is further rounded-out by the yoghurt which produces a springy, moist crumb with a lactic tang. A grapefruit’s flavour is warm amber compared to the clear jewel-like citrine taste of a lemon.

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Classic lemon bundt cake

Adding the zest to the cake mix results in a drizzle cake in all but name: the grapefruit juices are poured over the cooling cake and then used in an icing sugar-based glaze and this method clearly lends itself to all kinds of free-styling. The Southern Girls Kitchen has a newly published recipe for grapefruit pound cake which would make a great starting-block for experimentation using different glazes and adding in fruit to the batter: the cream cheese in the mixture and the filling also adds moistness and flavour. I have baked madeleines flavoured with bergamot and lime accompanied by a coconut dipping sauce and sharp lemon and lime loaf cakes where a sprinkle of sumach adds a rounded tangy flavour: Nigella’s lemon and polenta cake would also work well with sumach. I like the idea of friands scented with mandorla and Earl Grey tea or made with a blend of pomelo and Lady Grey. There’s other tea blends which sound intriguing too: try Adagio teas who sell a blend called crema di mandorle di albicocca (described as marzipan meets apricot in black tea with a splash of cream) which I think would be amazing in a cake on its own as well.

I’m currently testing a cake-riff on a breakfast grapefruit where we can take the grapefruit halves usual sprinkling of grilled brown sugar and transform this into a brown-sugar and butter icing for a brown-butter and grapefruit loaf cake, perfect for the colder months ahead.  In winter, try incorporating rosy quinces into a damp-crumbed fruity cake spiced with star anise; drench griddled brioche or madeira cake with blood-orange curd for breakfast; or tuck poached kumquats and lychees inside a friand so each bite of cake is enlivened by a heart of fruit. Keep an eye on this site and on my newspaper food column for the recipes.

Rachel Roddy has written about her own baking template- the yoghurt pot cake- which can be adapted as the seasons change and, as she finds, is terribly good-tempered about this. Here, she flavours it with lemon and persimmon which we sometimes refer to as Sharon fruit in the UK. The hachiya variety rewards the wait for ripeness as Rousseau explains: ‘patience is bitter but fruit is sweet,’ maturing to a sweet-jellied voluptuousness. Sponges made with it are beautifully damp. Add in a few slivers of stem ginger to deepen its sweetness into something more dustily mysterious and don’t be too fussy about shaking off the beads of syrup which cling to the little balls of ginger when you spoon them out of their jar and stir them into the batter.

Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms MarmiteLover) has published a recipe for a boiled-orange upside-down cake which also happens to be gluten-free. Made for one of her secret tea parties, the original idea came via Diana Henry on Saturday Kitchen and the recipe caught my attention because I remember my mother saying that the worst thing she ever had to eat as a child was boiled oranges in post-war Britain. After years of citrus fruit shortages, all she wanted to do was eat one fresh and as un-mucked about with as possible. I don’t think that boiled oranges are disagreeable at all, especially when the caramelised orange juices from Kerstin’s cake (which are fortified by Triple Sec or Cointreau) seep into the base of the almond-enriched crumb. Use Seville Oranges and after you’ve poured the orangey juices over the cake, dust it with more brown sugar and give it a blast under the grill: I think a Seville orange-flavoured cake needs this extra sugar, you, however, may not.

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Blood orange

I’m partial to  Diana Henry’s pomegranate and blood-orange cake which is, she says, ‘for those lunatics who don’t like Christmas pudding’ although I am not one of them. The photo alone sold it to me before I even looked at the recipe as it’s the loveliest thing; basically John Masefield’s Box of Delights in cake form. Pomegranates are such a Christmassy fruit and a heap of fruits on the table and windowsills allows their ruby peel to absorb and reflect back winter light. They glow softly in the corner of the room keeping company with piles of nuts and those long cardboard boxes stuffed with glistening gooey dates. Mead always seems Christmassy to me and I have been testing cakes flavoured with it, either as a soak for the sponge layers, combined with a light hit of orange or lemon in the cake mix or added to the whipped cream, mascarpone or creme fraiche served with each slice. There’s also a quince honey and mead stack cake in the style of the Appalachian apple stack which I made for a friend’s birthday. Watch this space.

Then there’s pies. I have eaten raspberry pies and used the leaves to flavour the cream which is poured over each slice. (Disclaimer: don’t give raspberry leaf cream to women who are pregnant and not at full-term just in case it does what it is reputed to do and primes their uteri for labour by triggering small contractions.) The North American Shakers created a lemon pie made from whole lemons, rind and all, and it is topped with bright wheels of sliced lemon. For all its summer sunniness, it is also the perfect pie for a cold winters day. Claire Ptak from Violet Bakery recently discovered this pie and published her recipe on Guardian Cook . It is pretty much the same recipe as the classic Shaker one.

Tommi Myers uses Tarocco blood-oranges in her pie, here. These oranges are the result of a random mutation of the common sweet orange (citrus sinensis) in a fifteenth century Sicilian orange orchard grove although there is evidence that one blood orange variety arose independently in China. The levels of anthocyanin, a water-soluble pigment commonly found in many types of red, purple and blue plants are elevated in the blood-orange and will only develop if the fruit is exposed to cold conditions during its development or post-harvest.Whilst we’re talking orange pigments, did you know that some oranges grown in some African countries might not develop the characteristic orange-hued peel, remaining green?

Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are a good alternative in the winter or the loose-skinned minneola (a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit), tangelo (bred by crossing the tangerine, grapefruit and orange and also known as the ugli fruit) in the warmer months: these all have aromatic peel and are incredibly juicy. If you have frozen raspberries left over from the previous summer or one of those bags of frozen berries, tip them in too because they add a lovely floral depth and give a pie the shade of a Turner sunset. I have eaten (and want to recreate) a cranberry-tangerine tart with a walnut crust whilst away at Christmas-time on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Nancy Capelloni’s Cranberry Cooking for All Seasons has a lovely-sounding recipe for a cranberry-orange loaf cake which again, is Christmas and Thanksgiving appropriate. I’d probably knock up a sugar-syrup flavoured with quatre-epices to pour over the finished cake to mitigate any overly-tart tendencies these fruits might possess.

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The Meyer lemon

I’ll finish on a high note in the form of Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake recipe, taken from her book Bread & Chocolate. Gage once owned and baked in a well-known San Francisco patisserie and is equally as talented at writing in this, her first book, and its sequel, A Sweet Quartet. Each chapter begins with a brief essay linked to a recipe and in the chapter devoted to citrus she tells us of the elderly woman who strode into her bakery one day with a brown paper bag full of citrons which became marmalade and of her own Meyer lemon tree. After patiently waiting for it to mature and bear fruit, Gage’s pleasure in her precious harvest of floral-scented fruit which comes via its lemon and mandarin-orange parents is palpable. This cake is my absolute favourite. Gage recommends we soak the lemon zest overnight in sugar-syrup (Neruda reminds us that the freshness of a lemon lives on in the sweet-smelling house of the rind) and, alongside the couple of ounces of  lemon juice which goes into the batter, this produces a cake of such tender dampness that it melts in the mouth. This is a cake to eat whilst you sit outside on a sunny day and read Helena Attlee’s  book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, which journeys through Italian history in order to trace the story of the lemons which were brought there by Arabs and now grow so prolifically in Italy.

Meyer Lemon Pound Cake

lemon soaking syrup:
4 lemons
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Zest the lemons and put in small pot with the sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the zested lemons to make 1/3 cup juice, and reserve for the cake.

To make the cake:

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
10 TB (5 oz) butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup lemon juice
prepared lemon zest, drained (syrup reserved)

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with the sugar until fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the lemon juice then stir in the zest. Pour the batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour. While the cake is still warm, poke holes all over its surface with a skewer and drizzle it with the reserved lemon syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.

 

 

 

Fennel cream cheese and tomato tart

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Like the French, I am not ashamed to buy and use ready-made puff pastry. The quality is generally good and it can save precious time when tiredness stands between you and a freshly baked tart.  I’m a big fan of open tarts because they can exert powers of resurrection over the tired stuff at the bottom of the fridge if you need to use it up. As always though, this will taste and look even better if your tomatoes are taut, herbs fresh and the cheese is the best you can afford. The fennel, herbs and cheese are whipped into a soft creamy bed for the tomatoes and smoothed over the uncooked pastry. If you don’t have access to fennel leaves (fronds) from a garden then many of the bagged salads in supermarkets contain it. Or look for an entire fennel root with a decent amount of fronds attached. The rest of the bulb can be sliced and added to salads, cooked down into summery tomato-based pasta sauces or roasted in its entirety so it won’t go to waste.

This tart takes minutes to prepare and they are good minutes too: by the time you slide the tart into the oven, the air will be scented with the aniseed notes of the fennel and the sharp grass and fruit of tomatoes at the height of their season.

Ingredients

320g ready-made puff pastry

2 very large tomatoes (around 750g)

150g Le Roule soft herbed cheese (or similar brand: Rosary garlic and herb goats cheese is good, too)

2 cloves garlic

sea salt and pepper

sprigs of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram (chopped, about 3 level tsp), keep a few more sprigs whole for garnishing

chopped fennel fronds (about 2 tsp) or fennel seed (1 tsp)

2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length

Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)

olive oil

Method

Heat oven to 190c / 375f and grease a flat baking tray with oil. Put tray in oven to get good and hot. This gives a good baked finish to the pastry base- no soggy bottoms.

Unwrap the pastry and place it on the baking tray then, using a sharp knife, score a line on the pastry, about ½ in (1 cm) in from the edge, all the way around without cutting all the way through. This will ensure that when the pastry bakes, a natural lip will form around the topping.

Crush the garlic with a flat blade and finely chop it. Then chop the fennel and herbs finely too, keeping a few stems of thyme and marjoram intact for the garnish.

Place the soft cheese into a  bowl, add the crushed garlic, fennel (fronds or seeds), chopped herbs and a goodly amount of salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Whip it together with a fork until it is creamy and well combined then using a small palette or other round-bladed knife, spread the cheese mixture evenly all over the surface of the pastry, right up to the line you scored earlier.

Now, thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the cheese in whatever pattern pleases you. Sometimes I overlap, sometimes (as in the photo above) I just dot them about.  Arrange the spring onions over them. Brush the edges of the pastry with olive oil, and drizzle some of the oil over the tomatoes and onions then season them  with a little more salt. Scatter the herb sprigs on top.

Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 40-50 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft, slightly charred at the edges and perfectly roasted. Keep an eye on it during the last ten minutes because seconds can lie between a perfect charred edge and black smoking ruin. I always throw on some shaved parmesan to serve, too.

 

Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn: a review

 

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Some might say that pride and pudding are two things my own life has shown a surfeit of but I would argue that in the case of the latter, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. And if I sound a little proud of that, then so be it.

Enter the newly published Pride and Pudding: the history of British puddings by Regula Ysewijn where the authors in-depth exploration of historical cooking texts has led to a rather splendid and faithful recreation of over eighty puddings, both sweet and savoury. By referencing each pudding’s original recipe against an updated version, Regula provides a contextual revival, helping us understand how and why recipes change over time. The bibliography and reference section are manna from heaven, providing the reader with a fine culinary and gastronomic genealogy and I wish more cookbooks did this, even if it invariably results my spending some eleventy billion pounds on yet more books (although my lack of fiscal self-control is hardly Regula’s fault).

The word ‘pudding’ sounds peculiarly English despite an etymological origin ranging from the West Germanic stem *pud- “to swell” which cognates with the Old English puduc ‘a wen’, or its possible origins in the Old French boudin “sausage,” which itself came from the Latin botellus ‘sausage’ and Regula explores this in her introduction. In the modern sense, the word ‘pudding’ had emerged by 1670, as an extension to the method of cooking foods by boiling or steaming them in a bag or sack. The German pudding, French pouding, Swedish pudding and Irish putog all derive from the word and as Regula points out in her foreword, in the eighteenth century when English food was developing its identity once more, pudding was central to its gastronomy and represented a solid challenge to the tyranny of French food which had developed itself as shorthand for all that was refined at table.

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Pudding has moved on from the stuffed vegetable recipe outlined in a Book of Cookrye in 1584 and the medieval technique of preparing fish, game birds and other beasts with a large pudding stuffed inside their belly although it took a Frenchman called Francois Maximilian Misson to declare “Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people…ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding.” Regula takes his lyrical tribute and runs with it, having amassed five years of blogging experience in the subject prior to writing her book.

Pride and Pudding begins with a handy guide to the different types of pudding (bread, baked, milk, boiled etc) then launches into a historical account of puddings through the ages, from their first mention in Homer’s The Odyssey where black pudding was prepared for Penelope’s suitors to feast upon as they competed for her hand, through to the Romans, Vikings, Normans and onto the court cooking that was documented in the years following the Hundred Years War when plague, taxes and harvest failures led to widespread famine. Moving onto the Medieval period, Regula tells us about surviving manuscripts which recorded the food of the elite: there’s a jelly made in the shape of a devil, a castle and a priest surrounded by a moat of custard and the first record of a pudding-cloth replacing animal intestines to cook puddings in. The Reformation wrought changes in the kitchen too with elaborate Catholic-associated feasts being replaced by ‘proper, honest cooking’ (the eternal cycle of fashion in food, perhaps) whilst Elizabeth the First’s sweet tooth led to a total lack of patent teeth in her later years. The introduction of refined white sugar  during her reign led to a sea-change in its use as sugar was transformed into the highly decorative sweetmeats which graced wealthy tables, and thousands of patissières must have cursed as they nursed burns from sputtering hot pans of sugar.

Moving onto the seventeenth-century, Regula tells us that French food gained dominance in Britain yet despite the prominence of this male chef-dominated cuisine more cookbooks were written by British women than ever before, kicking off with Hannah Wolley’s book, The Queen-Like Closet, published in 1670. Traditional white and black puddings continued to be popular whilst new puddings began to emerge such as Sussex Pond Pudding (1672, by Hannah), the first printed recipe for a Quaking Pudding was published as was the first recorded mention of the Christmas Pudding via Colonel Norwood’s diary record in 1645. As we move into the eighteenth to nineteenth-century and Georgian and Victorian cooking, the focus remains on spectacle with innovation in glassware permitting delicate milk puddings, syllabubs and jellies to be displayed beautifully and if you thought Heston Blumenthal popularised food made to resemble something else, you’d be wrong; the Georgians delighted in creating flummeries that resembled bacon and eggs.

Cabinet Pudding
Cabinet Pudding

We read of Parson Woodforde’s plum puddings, pease puddings and a pike with a pudding in its belly whilst Hannah Glasse makes the first print mention of the iconic Yorkshire Pud. The Georgian table was pudding heaven and the Victorian street-traders made them available to the lower-classes, selling plum duff and meat puds from steaming-hot baskets. Bookshops sold cookbooks entirely devoted to the pudding alongside Eliza Acton’s tome, Modern Cookery for Private Families, firmly locating the Angel of the Home back inside her kitchen unless she could afford staff.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw the growth of cooking as a leisure activity as an end in itself and the gradual move away from staffed kitchens in all but the grandest of houses. Two World Wars, the easy access to convenience foods and ingredients, the movement of women into the paid workplace, immigration, easy access to foreign travel and the decline in school cookery lessons has led to a period of turbulence in British food as it redefines itself. And our attitude to puddings very much reflects this. There’s our fetish for nursery-school puddings in a search for comfort and identity through shared nostalgia, the regained pride in our culinary past, the rise of chefs as superstars, and the constant need for new recipes to fill acres of space in cookbooks, magazines, online food sites and the many food-related TV programmes. And part of this necessarily involves looking back at where we-and the pudding- has come from.

This is where Regula’s solid research-based approach holds especial good, providing us cooks with context for ingredients and techniques. (The short section on what suet, rennet, gelatine and bone marrow is and what they are used for is both historically grounded and useful.) It is important, as a cook, to know why suet creates lightness in certain puddings and that vegetarian rennet substitutes go back to the time of Homer and are not newfangled. Once you start to take the why on board, you will soon be able to improvise and devise your own recipes as well as cooking your way through Pride and Pudding.

So…what about the pudding recipes? They are categorised into six sections: boiled and steamed; baked and batter puddings; bread puddings, jellies, milk puddings and ices; and lastly, a section for master recipes where you’ll find how to make clotted cream and custard-based sauces alongside various pastries, biscuits and flavoured vinegars. Regula incorporates notes  at the base of some of the pages, annotated with a sweet illustration of a pudding spoon. For example, her tort de moy, which is made with bone-marrow, double cream, candied peel, and rosewater among other things, has a suggestion of adding almonds to the infusion used to flavour the custard and her Devonshire white-pot can be cooked using a Dutch oven over a fire with its lid covered in hot coals instead of being placed inside an oven. There’s serving suggestions too.

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I’m particularly intrigued by her white-Pot recipe because a few weeks ago, I tweeted about a local bread and butter pudding recipe called Newmarket pudding (basically wailing for help) and Regula replied to me as did another culinary historian, Dr Annie Gray. The white-pot originated in Devon and consists of buttery layers of bread, set with custard and layered with sweet, plump dried fruits. Unlike our modern-day version where slices of bread are sogged in a mixture of sweetened-cream, the white-pot is sogged with a proper cooked custard made from egg-yolk, cream and sugar. It is an extremely luxurious-sounding meal although centuries ago, if you had access to your own cow, the incorporation of cream and butter would not have felt so indulgent and the pudding would have been a good way of using up stale bread. What might have been more of a luxury item would be the dried fruits which feel more prosaic to us, nowadays. Interestingly, the Newmarket pudding of which I mentioned was most likely the same pudding given a local name for no specific historical reason other than someone seeking to re-brand a generic national recipe for their own. The better historical question to ask is not who ‘invented’ Newmarket Pudding but why someone might seek to rename an existing recipe?

There’s in-depth recipes for haggis and black puddings with photographic depictions of their construction and the option of baking the latter in a tray instead of sausage casings. A white pudding sounds especially beautiful baked with saffron, pinhead oats, egg-yolks, dates and currants then served in a single burnished coil with honey, golden or maple syrup which would surely please James Joyce who saw the simple beauty in such a meal. A delicate castle pudding is similar to a pound cake in its ingredient proportions, lightly spiked with citrus from curd, juice or thinly sliced orange rounds. The sambocade, a cheese curd tart flavoured with elderflowers and the daryols, a flower-pot shaped custard tart, both made from hot-water pastry are somewhat sturdier, even rustic in appearance which belies the delicacy of their flavourings. I was particularly keen to make the prune tart whose genealogy includes their being made in Regula’s hometown of Antwerp on Ash Wednesday and it turned out beautifully despite my being unable to obtain’ the fairest Damask prunes’ as specified by Gervaise Markham in The English Housewife. I love prunes and the tablespoon of dark brown sugar added to them really intensifies their sticky dark flavour. If that doesn’t satisfy you then maybe try General Satisfaction, a pudding from Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, 1868. Topped with a froth of beaten egg-white which covers a base containing a layer of raspberry, sponge fingers and cream, this is a mad confection which seems to take the best from many traditional British puddings. Hence the name, maybe?

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Ypocras Jellies

The batter section has another recipe I have never encountered before, Jersey Wonders, little twists of dough which are browned in lard and look for all the world like tiny pairs of female labia. (I may or may not be selling these to you, based upon that description!) Regula has chosen to not fiddle with the original recipe too much, keeping the sugar proportions roughly the same apart from a dusting of icing sugar. These are next on my list to try alongside the Ypocras jellies whose name comes from the original name for mulled wine back in the Middle Ages although, as she says, mulled wine has been around since Roman times. Mentioned by Chaucer when the first written British recipe appeared, these jellies contain all manner of spices, ‘bruised’ using a pestle and mortar and they look richly festive, perfect for Autumn and Winter feasts when their cardomom, bay, nutmeg, clementine and sloe gin flavours naturally shine (and are in season here in the UK). If you want to inspect a recipe for the mulled wine used in the jelly (also called Hippocras), this website has reprinted a manuscript from 1530 with permission of the British Library and it contains some unusual ingredients such galingale, grains of paradise, cubebs and long pepper (and should you wish to buy long-pepper, Barts Spices sell a decent one). I suspect that Nigella Lawson, no slouch in the alcohol-infused jelly stakes herself will adore this part of the book. In the same section (jellies, milk puddings, ices) you will find all the indulgent flummeries, syllabubs, trifles, possets and bombes you could ever need. Perfect party food all of them, naturally possessed of a comforting glamour, and something that chefs like Heston Blumenthal and the jelly company Bombas & Parr have clearly been inspired by. This is a book whose art direction is as meticulous as its academic research yet at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed by style over substance. The images are Old Masterly in style and cleverly compliment the contemporary twist Regula affords her pudding recipes.

If, like me, you crave a return to a more thoughtful kind of cookbook that entertains while it educates, Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings is out now, published by Murdoch Books in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and Regula’s website also has details of some specially commissioned Pride and Pudding bowls. It’s a wonderful and  timeless book and one hell of an achievement.

Regula’s website: Pride and Pudding

Photographs used here with kind permission of Regula Ysewijn.

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Tom Hagen’s risotto

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Speck and cabbage awaiting the carnaroli rice

I first read The Godfather by Mario Puzo when I was about eleven after I found a tatty copy of it on my fathers bookshelf, keeping company with his yellow and black-liveried Dennis Wheatley paperbacks. As a man who spent half his life on a plane, he had amassed a fine collection of airport novels and at the time The Godfather and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel ruled supreme. I loved Puzo’s descriptions of sloppy red-pepper and steak sandwiches eaten as the Corleone brothers arranged to go to the mattresses after war broke out between the ruling mobster families of New York City and New Jersey. Life and death came together in these glorious kitchen feasts as Sonny Corleone charged round like a raging bull and the family consigliere, a man called Tom Hagen, attempted to calm him down.

Tom Hagen’s name is a wonderful genealogical collision, the result of the characters German-Irish ancestry which made him an unusual choice of lawyer/advisor for these Italian-American gangsters. So unusual a choice was he that the Corleones were referred to as ‘The Irish Gang’ by the other families who struggled to understand why the Corleones did not choose an Italian to be their counsel.

My son spent last Christmas at his uncles in a little village a few miles from Frankfurt: the towers and skyscrapers of the financial district were close enough to be seen in the distance from the roads around their house. He brought home a hamper filled with German foodstuff and all that speck, headcheese, pumpernickel, pflaumenmus (prune jam) and several kinds of wurst have kept us fed ever since. I love the muscular texture of speck, the sturdy way it stands up to all manner of boisterous kinds of cooking and to the Irish-inflected cabbage. It is this resilience which makes it perfect in my risotto, an Irish-Italian-German melange which earns it the moniker: Tom Hagen Risotto.

The flavours are wintry and bold and the Savoy cabbage perfectly melds with the cheese as it melts into the rice. The speck is sliced lengthways then cut into bouncy little dice, some with an edging of fat, some not and fried. The cabbage is julienned and then fried in butter too which causes it to develop lovely caught edges with a browned-butter flavour. There’s flexibility regarding what cheese you use too: fontina or taleggio all work well and I have also used a munster-géromé from Alsace-Lorraine. You do need a cheese that yields though as opposed to one that just sits on top of the risotto because those soft cheesy trails from mouth to plate as you fork up heaps of cabbage, rice and bacon bring the best pleasure.

The important thing to remember about risotto is that it loves your company. Stand close by with a wooden spoon and a pan full of warming stock on the next hob. Risotto doesn’t appreciate infusions of cold stock which cause it to lose heat and the steadier the temperature and more metronomic the stirring, the creamer your risotto will be. And you will feel calm and warm and well-disposed towards your fellow humans. It’s a shame Mama Corleone didn’t make this calming meal for her warring children because she might have spent less time at church praying for the repose of their souls.

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Ingredients

4-5 tbsp unsalted butter / 1.5L Chicken stock / 400g Carnaroli risotto rice / 1 med finely diced onion/ 80 ml white wine / 400g Savoy cabbage, cut into fine ribbons (julienne) / 150g speck cut into lardons / 100g grated fontina or taleggio /

Method

Place the chicken stock into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat and keep it simmering and covered on the back of the hob. You may need to top it up with more stock if you run out but this should be enough. I have used ready-made fresh stock for this risotto and I have also used stock made from the carcass of a chicken with a few leeks, carrots, a stem of celery and some onion too. It’s your call. Here’s a good stock recipe if you want to make your own.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a wide and shallow pan, add the finely-diced onion and start to sweat until softened which will take around four to five minutes. Keep the heat nice and low, you don’t want burned onions. Put another tablespoon of butter into a small fry-pan and add the ribbons of Savoy cabbage and let them start to soften. This should take a couple of minutes, then switch the heat off under the cabbage and let it rest.

Now you need to add the diced speck into the pan of softened onion and fry over a low to medium heat until the fat runs and the speck starts to colour. Those fat little cubes will start to pop and jump around in the pan like miniature Brown Betty bombs so don’t worry, this is normal but stand back a bit. When it has started to brown, stir in the risotto rice and swirl them around the pan, ensuring the grains acquire a glossy brown-butter coat. If you need more butter, now’s the time to add it. This stage is a very important moment known as the brillatura, or “sparkling,” which describes the translucent look of the rice kernels as they appear to toast in the browned butter.

Now pour in the wine over the rice mixture and stir over a low to medium heat until most of the wine has been absorbed by the rice. Now add in the set-aside cabbage ribbons and stir again.  You want to maintain it at the all’onda e al dente stage where the risotto moves across the pan in a wave-like motion as your spoon travels round and round the pan, stirring and stirring. You don’t need to stir constantly, but you do need to stir often because this is what encourages the rice to give up its starch.

Ladle in a cup of the hot chicken stock and continue to stir over a low-medium heat until all of this stock has been absorbed. Keep it company, make sure you have a little taste now and again and add a little salt if you think it requires it- let it cool slightly on the spoon so the flavour isn’t masked by the heat. The speck is naturally salty so you will need to allow for that.

Continue to ladle in the stock until it has pretty much been used up or the rice is done: you will know if it is because it will possess a creamy texture and the centre will retain a small bite. You don’t want mush, you aren’t making congee. This process should take about twenty to twenty-five minutes and don’t rush it as what you are aiming to do is slowly integrate the rice with the other ingredients, allowing each grain to be permeated by the flavour of the stock. The time you spend will be amply rewarded, I promise you.

When you think it is ready, turn off the heat and stir through another teaspoon or so of cold butter and then add in the pecorino, taleggio or fontina or whatever cheese you have chosen and stir it in. This stage is not an after-thought nor a casual finishing-off of your dish: it is far more important than that. You are completing the mantecatura where diced cold butter is vigorously stirred in to make the texture as smooth and creamy as possible. This completes what happened during the cooking when your stirring freed the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the stock. The released starch helps create that unctuous texture and you are looking for a risotto which Italians describe as all’onda, ( wavy, or flowing in waves”) so that when you tip the plate slightly, the risotto ripples across its top. Don’t hang around either, it needs eating immediately because it will continue to gently cook- part of the reason why it is so comforting to eat as its steam and creaminess warms you from the outside in.

 

 

blood-orange and honey curd

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This curd will give you a Turner sky in a jar…………

Blood-orange season offers a licence to gorge, a short period of time to enjoy the brightest of fruits in the depths of winter. Yesterday I realised that I have eaten nearly a crate-full of Taroccos in just three days, bought from my local market and most of them eaten as they are, split into quarters or sprinkled with either salt, celery-salt or a little chipotle dust to enhance their natural sweet-savoriness. I’m not alone in my love of salted blood-oranges either; read Rachel Roddy’s sensory evocation of oranges, eaten closer to their olive-grove home. Some of my oranges went into a blood-orange and pomelo sticky crunch cake and I re-visited last years fennel and blood-orange salad. Yet more were sliced and sprinkled with chipotle, achiote and salt then chucked into a roasting dish full of chicken thighs. The sturdy dark-meat of this part of the bird stands up to the most boisterous of flavours and my hands have taken on a semi-permanent orange hue.

Waitrose has re-branded them ‘blush oranges’, which sounds like something Hyacinth Bouquet might dream up and I hate it. Their blurb makes no mention of the dreaded B word and although they specify Sicily as country of origin, no more information is offered but they are Taroccos as many imported bloods seems to be. That red-stained flesh contains shed-loads of anthocyanin antidioxidants and one of the highest Vitamin C levels, compared to their peers. It’s an easy fruit to handle too, with thin and easy to peel skin, very little pith and what pith there is lacks the tongue-drying bitterness of other citrus fruits.

I already have a jar of Scarlett & Mustards orange curd in the fridge alongside their blackcurrant and star anise but after reading Melissa Clark’s recipe for blood orange olive-oil cake from her book In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite, where she mentions making a compote of blood-orange and honey to accompany it, I thought why not make some blood-orange and honey curd?

This recipe gives you a mellifluous curd, and ‘mellifluous’ couldn’t be more apt a description with its late Middle English and Latin root, [mel= honey and flu= to flow]. The honey adds a dulcet tone to the citrus-salt of the fruit, rounding it out through the labours of the bee, a creature defined by the first Spanish dictionary, back in 1611, as “the symbol of the curious, who gather sentences as the bee gathers flowers, making a work smooth and sweet.”

Clark’s little compote is simple: she takes three oranges and supremes them then drizzles in 1-2 teaspoons of honey and leaves the mixture to infuse but my curd involves a little more work- you will need to stand and cosset it a little as it cooks. It will reward you by keeping for a week in the fridge although my batch went in two days: I stirred the curd into ice-cream, used it to sandwich bitter-chocolate cookies and made a French toast hybrid by cutting brioche into fingers, frying them in a pan until golden and slightly caught on the edges then spreading them with a thin layer of curd. Or go Sicilian-luxe by sandwiching gelato in a brioche bun whose cut sides have been spread with curd first. You might choose to use it as a rich filling for a Pav which is also a useful way to use up the left-over egg-whites, (to make the meringues, here’s Nigella’s meringue recipe) give  cannelles a lovely citrus-sauced heart or sandwich together a sponge layer-cake. I imagine it’d be great dolloped onto your breakfast yoghurt or oatmeal too. It makes a good sauce to add interest to tiny friands and plain madeleines- thin it down a little with another squeeze of juice first. Stirred into cheesecake batter it not only adds tartness and depth, but also a beautifully rosy pink-red colour. So so versatile, like all curds are.

When a recipe is this simple, it really helps if you can try to find the very best ingredients you can: free-range eggs with golden-orange yolks, good unsalted butter of palest cream and honey with a light floral scent will all give your curd a superlative flavour and looks. However, it will still be a joyous thing to eat even if you use supermarket basic ingredients, so don’t worry if that’s all you have. This curd will give you a Turner sky in a jar.

Recipe for blood-orange and honey curd. 

You will need:

4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, sliced into little pieces / 60ml of honey (I use the set kind and I’d encourage you to avoid the very strong flavours: the chestnut, lavender, rosemary varieties are not what you want here) / 4 large egg yolks / 2 large whole eggs / 240ml of fresh blood-orange juice from unwaxed and then zested fruits (around 4-6 oranges) / 1 tablespoon of very finely grated blood-orange zest

Method

Take a medium bowl and cream the butter and honey inside it until it is fluffy and the butter is pale and creamy then marvel at the gorgeous colour,smell and texture. Break the whole egg and egg yolks into a jug and beat until foamy then stir the eggs into the honey/butter mixture slowly until they are incorporated. Take your time over this: add them slowly and ensure they are fully incorporated before pouring in more egg. You don’t want it to go all grainy. Now add the fresh blood-orange juice (again, very carefully) and when you have folded this in, pour the mixture into a medium-sized and non-reactive saucepan.

You will need to cook this over a low-medium heat on the stove-top and stir constantly with a broad wooden spoon as you do so. What you are looking for is the point at which the mixture becomes thickened, creamy and almost jelly-like: watch for when it clots and then pulls away from the sides of the pan as you cut through from one side of the pan to the other with your wooden spoon. The mixture will arrive at this point quite suddenly so now is not the time to check your phone or glance at the newspaper. It’s a culinary high-wire act because you don’t want it to boil, you need to keep it on the edge of doing so and it will want to boil so stay close. Just before it breaks into that boil, when it is beginning to splutter and putter at you, remove the pan from the stove-top heat. You will know it is done because the curd will leave a clear trail on the back of the wooden spoon. It will be volcanically hot and it WILL stick to your skin if you splash it on you so be careful.

Now you’ve removed it from the heat, stir in the citrus zest. As you do so, lean over and breathe in the dizzying scent of oranges that will rise from the pan. Take a moment to enjoy this. Your curd is done. Now all you have to do is pour it into whatever pretty jar or pot you have set aside. That pot will have already been washed in boiling water and left to air-dry, or whatever method you choose to sterilise them. (If you decide to omit this stage and just wash those jars, the curd will keep for around 5 days in the fridge.) When you have decanted all your curd, let it cool in the jars until it is stone cold and then you can screw on the lids. Store it in the fridge and eat it swiftly. This is not a long-life food once that jar is opened, just as the blood-orange is with us for a few short weeks.

 

 

The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, the once highly-popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have risen rapidly in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the “polyester of lettuces” by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian but God love her, she is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if Iceberg contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale? Just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Deliciously Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the Iceberg was once the most celebrated of lettuces. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, Iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time-faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the Iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed-like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

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Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, Iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and all kinds of vinegar. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with Iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the Iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and Chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard-boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?