Archive for May, 2011

Potage Crème d’Épinards

May 31, 2011

Cream of Spinach Soup

Today I am spending the morning in my kitchen, cooking the base for what will become a cream of spinach soup. I shall freeze the base that I am about to make and then defrost it over Friday night, ready for finishing off for the dinner I am making on Saturday for friends.

I look around the work surfaces and see a lot of mess and clutter. I shift the items that need to be washed up over to the sink and make some clear space for myself.

A clear work space

The first thing to do is to get that washing up sorted out (we do not have a dishwasher). I am rinsing the items under the tap and thinking about how I want to approach the morning. Should I regard it, for example, as a bit of a chore? That certainly doesn’t square with the book on Zen Guitar that I have been reading. I don’t want to start spouting a load of pseudo-Zen stuff here, but a better way to proceed would be if I take every step with care, and delight in what I am doing. I pause to look at the clean pile of stuff on the draining board. I’m glad I washed up first; the greengrocer at the market has to set out his stall afresh each day.

Washed up and ready to start

I open Julia Child’s book at the recipe for potage crème d’épinards (cream of spinach soup), which is based on her recipe for potage crème de cresson (watercress soup). I get a pan on for stock and hoy onion, carrot, herbs, and a good slurp of white wine into the water. I use bottled water because our tap water has a chemical taste and that won’t go away in the cooking. I tip out the spinach leaves and make a pile on the work surface: 400 grams.

400 grams of spinach leaves

I read the recipe. Julia requires the leaves to be chiffonade. This will take some time. I have come to a cross-roads. I could chop them in 5 minutes, maximum. I could cook them whole and puree the soup later. I am convinced that my dinner guests would not notice whatever way I decide to go. I choose to keep faith with Julia. I know this is going to be a challenge, but I need to enjoy it as such. I go and get a classical CD and put it on to play in my kitchen media unit. I have chosen the Brandenburg Concerto #1 by J.S. Bach. The music starts, and I take hold of my knife. I select a pile of leaves and place them ready for the cut. The CD player keeps jumping. I abandon the CD. I pause and think. I refuse to become annoyed. I have had the machine for about 20 years and I think it needs to be replaced at some point. I turn the radio on to our BBC3 classical station. The music is good, but there is interference. Maybe somebody is using a hedge trimmer or something like that, nearbye. I think about this for a little while. I decide to explore silence.

Leaves layered ready for cutting

I am chiffonading, something I seldom do. The pile looks enormous. I give myself a mental slap on the wrist. That sort of attitude will never do; it is most un-Zen-like. I decide that I must not think about getting to the end of the pile. What I need to do is focus on the present, on the here and now. Each leaf, each draw of the knife.

The chiffonade

The house is very still. Soon, I perceive that the silence is being filled. There is a quiet but rythmic muffled ticking sound, emanating from the kitchen clock. It reminds me of my paternal grandparents house: tick-tock, tick-tock. Soon, I realise that the kitchen rhythm section is more complex; the fridge freezer appears to be generating an improvised jazz solo across the beat of the clock. I can hear the sound of my own breathing, too. I check my watch. I have been chiffonading for 12 minutes. I decide that it would be good to make a cup of coffee and to sip that from time to time while I cut.

Coffee on the side

I am aware of the part that this part of the culinary preparation plays in the recipe as a whole. As I cut, and cut, I make the link to my experience of drawing a sketch of Orford castle. The sections of brick took me a long time and to do them was rather repetitive. However, I was rewarded for my attention to detail in the completed sketch; without patience the sketch would have had a different character and it would not have been mine. I feel good about making this comparison. I continue to focus on the present moment. If I have a thought, I let it go. In this way I avoid slipping into the world of daydreams. After an hour, I have finished. In the broader scheme of things, it does not matter whether I spend 10 minutes or 60 minutes chiffonading. Many folk routinely spend a lot longer than 60 minutes watching mind-numbing rubbish on TV. By way of contrast, I have had a very interesting experience this morning.

Cut, cut, cut, cut....

I melt some butter in a pan and sweat some chopped onion. Then I push in the chiffonaded spinach and leave that to wilt under a gentle heat for five minutes. At this point I stir in some rice flower and cook that through for a few minutes before taking it off the flame and beating in my strained stock. I simmer the soup base for another five minutes and then I am finished. I shall freeze it when it has cooled down, later today. I say that I am finished; that is not quite correct. If I am to bring closure to the Zen-kitchen experience, I need to wash and tidy up my stuff. First I eat an improvised snack made from the onion and carrot I used for my stock. Then I get squared away. One thing that occurred to me this morning was that I would very much like to find a bistro-style check table cloth to put on my round table in our sitting room. I have a very nice pale blue cloth that I use for the big 1×2 metre table I made but I shall not be assembling that on Saturday.

It is now time to practice some arpeggios on guitar. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Walking in the woods around Lumley castle

May 25, 2011

Today I set out, with my friends Tom and Terry, on the second of our country walks. We followed a footpath which wound around the woods near Lumley castle. We started by crossing the A1 motorway and then looping back on our tracks following a trail that took us underneath the motorway.

Crossing the A1 motorway

Underneath the A1

Supports for the A1 motorway

Tom and Terry stepping out into the countryside

It was strange to find ourselves in leafy woodland yet hear the drone of the motorway traffic in the background. There was an incongruous tension between the senses of sight and sound.

Into the leafy woodland

The A1 motorway, never far away

From time to time we caught sight of the motorway across the fields, only to move on into farmland, with the cows and the wild flowers.


Wild flowers

Barbed wire abounded, and there were notices aplenty warning us to keep out! Still, without trespassing, we were able to enjoy a measure of tranquility as we ambled along tow path by the river.

Barbed wire

The river

From time to time, we came across some exquisitely textured lengths of old brick wall; we always savour such moments.

Brick wall

Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Pasty Bolognese

May 24, 2011

Last night I made some short crust pastry following using Delia Smith’s recipe because I had a lot of problems with Julia Child’s when I made a quiche the other day. Today I made some Bolognese sauce with diced potato and used that as a substitute filling for what might otherwise have been a cornish pasty (well, I made five pasties). They turned out to be rather large. The idea is that I shall take them on a walk I am doing tomorrow with my friends Tom and Terry. I think I might need my 30L ruck sack for the job (as opposed to my 10L size). The pasties seem to have turned out well, although I think they would be better eaten with new potatoes and tomato sauce. I hope they won’t taste too dry when we are out in the woods.

Cornish pasties with a Bolognese filling

Quiche Lorraine

May 22, 2011

This morning I set about making quiche Lorraine. I had to adapt the recipe to accommodate She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned (SWMNBM) since she does not eat bacon. Julia says you can sautée diced cooked ham in butter and use it as a substitute for the bacon; I used diced chicken breast.

The pastry had been resting overnight in the fridge and so the first thing I did was to roll it out on my slab of marble. I brushed my flan tin with some olive oil and managed to get the pastry to fit well into the tin, pressing the edges into the fluted rim. I then followed Julia’s advice and put a sheet of foil over the pastry and filled that with baking beans. I then put the tin in the oven and baked blind for around 10 minutes.

Baking blind with foil and baking beans

When I lifted out the foil I discovered the base of the flan to be swimming in liquid butter. I was not prepared for this and not well-pleased. I stuck the tin back in the oven for another 5 minutes. This time the base pastry had ballooned up, despite my trying to prick it before I put it in. I pricked the base once more and the balloon settled back down. It still looked rather soggy to me but there was not much I could do about it. The sides were already starting to feel crisp.

getting ready with the filling

I put the savoury egg custard mixture into the pastry shell, put a few dobs of butter on top and put it in the oven to cook. Meanwhile I boiled some new potatoes and chopped some parsley to garnish them with when done.

Quiche with boiled potatoes and parsley garnish

The quiche and potatoes made a pleasant Sunday lunch but I came away with severe reservations concerning Julias pastry recipe and cooking technique. I have made a pencil note in the book to go back to Delia Smith for pastry guidance. The egg custard cooked perfectly and a knife came out clean when I brought it out of the oven. I should have checked the seasoning, though, it could have done with more salt. I really enjoyed the diced chicken breasts in the quiche but SWMNBM was not so keen. So, in the grand scheme of things culinary, I give it a 5/10. Speak to you later my dear blogophiles.

Pâte brisée

May 21, 2011

It is Saturday morning and an ideal time to crack on with another Julia recipe. Today I am making pâte brisée (short crust pastry). I shall take it to the stage where the pastry comes together in a ball and then I shall leave it to rest in the fridge until tomorrow lunchtime when I shall make a quiche. So here are the main ingredients.

The main ingredients

I have made short crust pastry before many times but today I am following Julia’s recipe closely, at least, as far as ingredients and quantities go. However, I am perfectly happy to deviate whenever I feel the need. For example, I prefer to grate the cold butter into the flour, rather than rub it in with the tips of my fingers.

Grating in the butter

I added cold water until the pastry came together. Perhaps I should have made a pencil note as to how much water I used but I did not think to do that at the time. I’ll put the pastry ball to rest in the fridge until tomorrow

Pastry ready to roll tomorrow

Well, I think I have just enough time to get this onto my blog before going off on a major supermarket trip. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Fish n chips in South Shields

May 20, 2011

My friend Tom and I decided to take an early lunch today, instead of the full English breakfast that we would normally have on a Friday. We met at Sunderland University metro station and headed off to South Shields, changing at Pelaw. From South Shields metro station it is possible to look down the length of Ocean Road, towards the sea.

Looking down Ocean Road from South Shields metro station

We left the platform and walked the length of Ocean Road. On the right-hand side we went past the most amazing collection of Asian Indian restaurants; on the left there were numerous guest houses. When we got to within spitting distance of the beach we doubled back, mainly because the dark rain clouds had started to spit a bit.

We found Colman’s famous fish and chip restaurant and took a table for two at the back of the room. Service was prompt and pleasant. We both ordered cod and chips with a pot of tea on the side. I was tempted to order some rounds of white bread and butter but I refrained from doing so. Another day the temptation to ask for an extra portion of chips in order to make a chip butty might be too strong for me to resist, but I did not succumb this morning. Within a couple of minutes we had our pot of tea on the table and shortly afterwards our fish and chips came, too. There were no fancy frills; we asked for fish and chips and that is what we got.

Without doubt this was the best plate of fish and chips I have tasted within decades. I have eaten fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby and also at Eastbeach Cafe in Littlehampton. Excellent as these acclaimed establishments undoubtedly are,  Colman’s of South Shields gets my vote. The fish was fresh, tender, and cooked to perfection. The batter was light and crisp. I would not have minded if my chips had been browned a litte more but Tom liked them just the way they were. I took mine with malt vinegar and salt, as befits this superb dish.

Fish n chips ~ photo by Tom Young

The grey rain clouds burst as I was walking home from the metro and I got a good soaking. At first I screwed up my face, as though I were sucking a particularly tart wedge of lemon, but then I remembered a girlfriend from the past who loved to walk in the rain. She adored the smell and she was invigorated by the feel of the raindrops upon her face.   I decided that I should adopt her as my role model; I tried to relax and enjoy the sensation for what it was. After all, I don’t make a big fuss when I have taken a shower; I just get a towel and dry off. I don’t burst into tears when I pull my wet clothes out of the washing machine; I just put them in the dryer. Sometimes, an experience needs to be reconstrued in a more creative way before it can be fully savoured. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Coffee in Hexham

May 19, 2011

Today I travelled to Hexham to meet with my friend Patrick. The sky was half-covered with dark puffy clouds. Were I to be in a glass-half-full mood I would focus on the blue sky and the sunny breaks, We met in the market square. I was tempted to buy some farm eggs but we pressed on to what has become our usual café. Once settled we placed our orders with the young waitress, and passed the time of day with her. Then we launched into one of the better specimens of our circuitously rambling conversations. A couple of hours and two cafeteriéres later, we emerged back into the square. We got no further than a couple of hundred yards before we felt the need to sit down on a bench, take the sun, and finish our natter. This was easier said than done, since our chats are characteristically open-ended.

Hexham car park

Eventually I returned to my car and started the journey home, There was a huge plume of smoke arising from the Newcastle skyline. I tuned into the local radio and learned that a scrap yard had caught fire.

When I got home I mowed the lawn. Indeed, I am now sitting in a sun lounger on it, listening to the sweet song of a blackbird. I am writing on a paper note pad with my digital pen. My plan is to convert it to text once I have uploaded to computer. In the past, I frequently wanted to write my blog while sitting in the garden (at least, in the summer months). However, it never worked for me owing to the difficulty of reading a computer screen outside in daylight. If this approach to digital handwriting and subsequent conversion to text works, it could change my modus operandi for both blogging and the writing of fiction. For the time being, it is rather buggy but I have not finished setting up the recognition program; it needs to be trained to recognise my quirky penmanship.

Had I not travelled to Hexham, I would have made Julia’s pâte brisée (short crust pastry). As it is, I think I shall do that tomorrow, let it rest in the fridge overnight, and then make a quiche on Saturday. Good plan, if I do say so myself. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Digital jottings in a car park

May 18, 2011

Stream of consciousness in a car park

Loopers and sauces

May 16, 2011

Last night I finally got down to some serious practice with my Boss Loop Station. It took a while to remember how to patch things between my guitar, my amp, and my mixer but in the end I got a reasonable sound from it all. I was very excited with the progress I seemed to make on several looper arrangements: ‘Always on my mind‘, ‘Girl of the North Country‘ and ‘Folsom prison blues‘. However, one really does have to be absolutely spot on time with a looper and I think I need to give myself more time to practice before I include these arrangements in my shows. I did wonder about playing them tonight at my Terra Fyrmusica gig but I think that is now unlikely.

As for sauces, I have notched up two more of Julia’s recipes. I am cheeting really because Béchamel sauce is the base or the first step in making Source Mornay (cheese sauce). I made it in a very small quantity using only a quarter pint of milk. It is sometimes a challenge to make recipes for a single serving and I am interested in attempting to do that where possible.

I got the sheet music for ‘She‘ today. This was originally a Charles Aznavour song but Elvis Costello did a great version (that was the one in the film ‘Notting Hill‘). I would like to try to learn this song on piano. That’s all for now. Talk to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Two more Julia recipes

May 14, 2011

I think it is now official; I have become obsessively hooked on the Julie-Julia project. Today sees two more recipes completed, bringing the total to 4 since Wednesday. They are…

  • Potage velouté aux champignons (cream of mushroom soup)
  • Croûtes (hard toasted French bread)

Sliced mushrooms for the soup

I shall keep this blog short today, since I have things to do. Bye for now, my dear blogophiles.