Excerpt and Recipe: 'The Kitchen Diaries'

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The Kitchen Diaries

by Nigel Slater

Hardcover, 416 pages

List Price: $40.00

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May

The short-lived, single flowers of the Rosa chinensis mutabilis have opened. At first light they are pale amber flecked with crimson. By dusk they will lie flat over the bush like so many exhausted butterflies. In the larder is a jar of French rose petal jelly. On a clear, bright Saturday morning such as this, I should unscrew the cap and eat the quivering pink conserve with spoonfuls of thick sheep yogurt. It could be a magical moment. Instead I put one of the croissants I bought yesterday under the broiler, letting it blacken across the top, then eat it whilst thumbing through the papers with buttery fingers and drinking coffee.

May 1
Roses, and an extraordinary salad

Saturday mornings in summer are sacrosanct. Coffee, croissant, the papers, which are so much more readable than those in the week, then a trip to the shops for salad, fish, a cheese, slices of prosciutto, some fruit. Then I potter about in the garden. Lunch is early, a lazy kitchen picnic – a rambling meal of shop-bought stuff eaten straight from its wrapping. This is as much of a ritual as opening a bottle of champagne on a Friday evening, or making soup when I clean out the fridge. My Saturday mornings are one of the few predictable things about this kitchen and I love them for that.

I found pea shoots today. A white felt mat covered with soft green leaves and curling tendrils, from which the purchaser is allowed to cut off as much or as little as they want. Farm shops and farmers' markets are the usual hunting grounds for these short-season treats. I spot mine in the herb section of a smart food shop, nestling between the ubiquitous bags of arugula and sweet little trays of mustard and cress. I could fry them for a few seconds in hot oil and sprinkle them with flakes of sea salt. Instead I get the full hit of clean, pea-greenness by tossing the shoots in a salad with tiny spinach leaves and hot, skinny arugula. Eaten raw, they are the very essence of freshly podded peas and possess a mouthfeel quite unlike anything else. Dressed only with lemon juice and a very light and fruity olive oil, they make a late-spring salad with textures that amaze and delight.

I save some of the pea shoots to go with three vast slices of halibut I am cooking tonight, which will be respectfully seasoned with salt and oil, then grilled and served to friends with nothing more fancy than lemon halves and black pepper.

The shoots were supposed to surprise and amuse everyone. Truth told, no one even notices them.

May 2
Lemon and basil linguine

Few sights lift the spirits like a crate of lemons with their glossy leaves intact. They keep well, so I buy them by the dozen. I snap their stems and sniff the cut ends as I pile them into a bowl. They carry with them the faintest ghost of their white blossom. Lemons are as much a part of this kitchen as pepper and salt, but right now their spring-like freshness is more welcome than ever. Sometimes, I start my day with a slice or two in a glass of hot water, actually a little Moroccan tumbler, its snowy etching and gold rim almost worn off with age.

In our house, a lemon will find itself accompanying a grilled pork chop or even a steak, or sometimes I'll toss one in with a roasting chicken or a pan of sliced potatoes as they crisp in the oven. Lemons are squeezed into a rasping green-oil mayonnaise, instantly lightening its color and flavor, and even find their way into the velvety gloop of a risotto. I have only recently started to use lemons with pasta (even though lime is a given with Asian noodles). Squeezed or grated into a cream sauce and matched to fat, peppery basil leaves, they introduce a vitality all too often missing in Italian pasta 'comfort' suppers.

Today I don't bother with the cream. This 'sauce' is all about the sharpness of the lemon tempered by the Parmesan, and the warmth of the pasta gently bringing out the fragrance of the basil. I'm not sure if it's about chemistry or art. All I know is that it is sumptuous and incredibly simple.

Grating 3/4 cup of Parmesan takes longer than you might think, but no longer than it takes the pasta to cook. This turns out to be another ten-minute supper.

linguine – 1/2 lb
the juice of a large lemon
olive oil – 1/3 cup
grated Parmesan – 3/4 cup
basil leaves – a large handful

Put a huge pot of water on to boil. When it is bubbling furiously, salt it generously, then add the linguine. Let it cook at an excited boil for about eight minutes.

Put the lemon juice, olive oil and grated Parmesan in a warm bowl (warmed under a running tap, then dried) and beat briefly with a small whisk till thick and grainy. Tear up the basil and stir in with a grinding of black pepper.

Drain the pasta and quickly toss in the lemon and Parmesan 'sauce'.

Enough for 2

There is the constant patter of rain on the kitchen roof and the gentle rattle and putter of a pan of simmering chickpeas. I don't always cook these hazelnut-sized legumes from scratch, and often as not open a can instead. I guess I just wanted to smell them cooking today – a mealy, nutty smell that must have filled Middle Eastern kitchens since time immemorial. That said, they do survive the canning process more successfully than any other ingredient.

May 4
Chickpeas with harissa, basil and ham

The chickpea thing has been set in motion by my finding a jar of organic harissa in the health food shop. I usually buy this brick-red spice paste in beautiful little cans with yellow and blue writing and scenes of Fez. I use a tablespoon or two to add depth to a stew or bite to a baked eggplant, then leave the opened can in the fridge. I find it a few weeks later when I am having a clear out, sporting a layer of blue fur. I must have thrown away scores of them over the years. Harissa in a screw-top jar could change my life.

There always seems to be an eggplant and a few tomatoes around. They come, with a slight monotony, in the weekly organic sack. If they are still there by Wednesday, I roast them with olive oil and maybe oregano, cumin or garlic, then eat them as a warm salad with sesame bread and fresh basil leaves. To add substance, I may stir in some cooked navy beans or chickpeas. If you do this whilst the beans are hot, they soak up all the sweetly tart juices from the roasted vegetables. A good supper, but I tend to use it just as much as a salad to sit on the table when we eat outdoors, a knubbly, luscious side dish to accom-pany grilled lamb.

tomatoes – 6 large ones or a mixture of sizes
a medium-sized eggplant
olive oil – 1/2 cup
red wine vinegar – 1/4 cup
cumin seeds – 1 1/4 teaspoons
chickpeas – two 14-oz cans
large basil leaves – 12
Spanish ham or prosciutto – 9 thin slices
For the dressing:
harissa paste – 1 1/4 teaspoons
olive oil – 1/4 cup

Set the oven to 400°F. Twist the tomatoes from their stalks. Cut each one into six pieces, then put them into a roasting tin. Discard the stalk from the eggplant, slice the flesh in four lengthways, and then into short chunks. Put them in the roasting pan together with the oil, vinegar, cumin seeds and a generous grinding of black pepper and sea salt. Roast for about an hour, until the eggplant is soft and golden brown, the tomatoes are caught slightly at the edges and the whole lot is fragrant, sizzling and juicy.

Lift the tomatoes and eggplant from the tin with a slotted spoon, putting them in a mixing bowl but leaving any roasting juices behind in the pan. Mix the drained chickpeas with the tomatoes and egg-plant.

Make the dressing by stirring the harissa and olive oil into the roasting juices, then tip it in with the vegetables. Leave a film of dressing in the pan. Leave the basil leaves whole, even if they are very large, and fold them into the salad. They will wilt and soften in the slight heat from the vegetables.

Set the roasting pan over a moderate heat, lay the slices of ham in the film of dressing and cook till they start to crisp lightly. A matter of a minute or so. Transfer the salad to a small serving platter. Lift the ham out and lay the slices on top of the salad.

Enough for 4

And the best mangoes ever

From now until the end of June, the Alphonso mangoes are around. Smooth-skinned, custard yellow and heavily fragrant, they are about as sweet and juicy a fruit as you could ask for. You can pick them up by the box for a bargain price at Indian or Middle Eastern grocers. I sometimes think they are the finest fruit on earth.

They come, six or eight to a box, each highly prized fruit bedecked with a single strand of tinsel and swaddled in yellow or magenta tissue paper. Opening a box of Alphonso mangoes is like peeping in on a carnival. Their deep orange flesh is at its most welcome after a meal spicy enough to make your lips smart.

Some new potatoes barely bigger than fava beans have come my way. They will take not much longer than ten minutes in boiling water, so I want something to eat with them that takes about the same length of time. Though grilled food always sounds the right note for me, I sometimes long for the more gentle flavors of an old-fashioned sauté. Lamb steaks, or indeed any chops, work well when cooked in a little oil in a shallow pan, remaining juicy in the extreme. If you add the torn leaves of an herb and maybe some lemon juice to the toasty sediment at the bottom of the pan, you end up with extraordinarily delicious, fresh-tasting pan juices. Just the thing to crush the new potatoes into.

May 7
Lamb chops with lemon and mint and potatoes crushed into the pan juices

new potatoes – 20 or so
lamb leg steaks or chops – 4
a lemon
mint leaves – 15–20
olive oil – 5 tablespoons

Put the potatoes on to boil in deep, salted water. Season the chops on both sides with black pepper and sea salt. Finely grate the lemon zest and roughly chop or tear the mint leaves. Mix the olive oil with the grated zest of the lemon, the mint and a little pepper and salt.

When the potatoes are almost tender, warm the oil and lemon mixture over a moderate heat in a shallow, heavy-based pan. As it starts to sizzle, lay the seasoned lamb in the pan and let it color for a couple of minutes. Turn the meat over and cook the other side for a minute or two, making sure that the lemon and mint aren't burning. The meat should remain juicy, its surface caught golden brown here and there, rose-pink within. Lift the meat on to warm plates.

Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the hot pan and let it bubble for a few seconds, scraping at the gooey sediment left behind by the chops and stirring it in. Pour it over the chops and vegetables, crushing the potatoes into the cooking juices as you eat.

Enough for 4

There are already recurring themes in my shopping this month. Fava beans and ham, fava beans and goat cheeses, fava beans and olive oil. The latter with the finger-length beans simmered whole with the oil, lemon and chopped dill, then eaten with sesame bread and thick yogurt. The asparagus has been a good price this year, pretty much the same as last. So far I have eaten it as plain as paper, with softening, not quite melted butter, and last week grilled and tossed with olive oil and grated pecorino. Other shopping-bag regulars have been lemons, sheep yogurt, spinach, blueberries (Polish, Spanish, whatever), a little wild salmon and some hugely disappointing apricots.

May 8
Pancakes at the stove

A friend turns up at two forty-five in the afternoon. Too late for lunch, too early for tea.

They sit on a stool at the side of the cooker whilst I make pan after pan of thick, soft pancakes. Normally they would get a cookie and a mug of tea, but I am testing a recipe for the column and there is something faintly relaxing about exchanging gossip whilst tossing pancakes. If I had some blueberries, I'd bubble them up in a small pan with a spoonful of sugar till their skins burst and then pour them and their purple syrup over the little cakes. I haven't, so we make do with confectioners' sugar and a puddle of melted apricot jam. At this time of year, this is probably as near as I get to a hot dessert.

Orange and ricotta pancakes

ricotta cheese – 1 cup
superfine sugar – 5 tablespoons
large eggs – 3, separated
the finely grated zest of a large orange
all-purpose flour – 1/2 cup
melted butter – 2 generous tablespoons

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, sugar and egg yolks. Grate the orange zest into the bowl and stir it in gently with the flour. Beat the egg whites with a balloon whisk till they are stiff, then fold them lightly into the ricotta mixture. I do this surely but gently, so as not to knock the air out.

Warm a non-stick frying pan over a moderate heat, add the butter, then, as it starts to sizzle lightly, place a heaped tablespoon of mixture into the pan. You will probably get three in at once, but leave room for them to spread. Let them cook for a minute or two till they have risen somewhat and the underside has colored appetizingly, then, using a spatula, flip them over to cook the other side. Let them color, then serve immediately, with a little melted jam and a slight shake of confectioners' sugar.

Makes 8

May 9 and 10
A bean soup to celebrate a spring clean

Cleaning out the kitchen cupboards invariably inspires a bean soup. It is only then, with the Kilner jars and scrunched cellophane packets laid out on the table, that I realize just how many borlotti, cannellini, lentils and fava I actually have. I have no basil for a summer pesto soup, and anyway I am not sure the days are yet warm enough for that. Along with French pissaladière, salade niçoise and slices of watermelon, the sun must be very high in the sky for a soupe au pistou to feel right.

There is tarragon in the garden though, and a hot bean soup, creamy rather than tomato-flecked, would warm a chilly late-spring evening without sending us into a sweat. After the soup there is a plate of Tuscan prosciutto and some wide wedges of a smooth-skinned yellow melon that turned up in my organic bag and is now, three days later, dripping with juice.

White bean and tarragon soup

dried navy, cannellini, or borlotti beans – 1 1/4 cups
2 or 3 bay leaves
a thick slice of butter or a tablespoon of olive oil
scallions – 5
medium-sized carrot
a clove of garlic
chicken or vegetable stock – 4 cups
tarragon – a good 1/4 cup

Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain them and cover with deep, cold water. Bring the water to a boil, add a bay leaf and a tiny slick of olive oil, then turn down to a simmer and leave for about an hour, until the beans are completely soft. They should have little or no bite in them. Drain them and discard the water.

Warm the butter or oil in a heavy-based pan. Roughly chop the scallions and stew them for a few minutes in the fat. Once they have softened, peel and finely dice the carrot and garlic and stir them into the onions, letting them soften for five minutes over a low heat.

Tip the beans into the onion and carrot, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down after a few minutes of enthusiastic boiling, then leave to simmer with salt, black pepper, the leaves of half the tarragon and the remaining bay leaves. Leave for a good half hour, until the beans are starting to collapse. Add the remaining tarragon and process in a blender till smooth and thick, adjusting the seasoning as you wish.

Enough for 6

May 10
A potatoless fish cake for spring

To the Lebanese shops that line London's Edgware Road. Here are bunches of dill the size of horses' tails and tubs of thick, tart yogurt. I cannot resist either. The aniseed smell of the dill reminds me of a restaurant I once worked in, where a nightly job was to walk through the walled garden picking great handfuls of the herb to go in a sauce for the local salmon.

Dill and salmon is a made-in-heaven marriage that works in so many forms: as gravlax, as a retro mousse, or as a piece of gently poached fish with an accompanying green sauce. A long-time fan of this particular culinary partnership, I have a go at making fish cakes with chopped dill but without potato. Tiny cakes that crisp up in the pan and weigh less heavily on the stomach than the traditional variety. I put them on the table with a tub of yogurt into which I have stirred chopped dill, a spoonful of grain mustard and a smidgin of black pepper.

They are rich but light and, despite a side dish of green beans with parsley, they leave us in need of dessert.

Salmon and dill fish cakes

salmon – 2 1/4 lbs
a large egg white
dill – a small bunch
flour – a generous tablespoon
grain mustard – 1 1/4 teaspoons
the juice of half a lemon
olive or peanut oil

To serve:

lemon wedges

thick yogurt with dill and grain mustard

Remove the skin from the salmon, then chop the flesh finely. Put it in a bowl with the egg white, a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped dill fronds, the flour, mustard and lemon juice, then mush together with a generous grinding of salt and black pepper. Squash spoonfuls of the mixture together lightly with your hands to make ten small balls. Flatten each one slightly and set aside for a few minutes.

Get a little oil hot in a shallow pan. Place the patties in the hot oil (I do this in two batches) and leave them for two or three minutes, until they have colored on the underside. Turn them over with a spatula and color the other side. Cut one in half to check for doneness. The fish should be lightly cooked within and golden and crisp on the outside.

Eat with wedges of lemon and the mustard sauce.

Enough for 3

Lemon amaretti cream pots

I am all for spooning out a dessert from a vast dish in the center of the table but there is a certain elegance, a charm if you like, about a dessert served in individual dishes – like those classic French chocolate mousse pots. This is one for serving in small portions and it needs something crisp to accompany it, such as waffle wafers or those ¬chocolate-dipped wafer curls. A delicate little recipe this, best served well chilled.

heavy cream – 1 cup
thick, natural yogurt – 1 cup
good-quality lemon curd, preferably home-made – 3/4 cup
ratafia biscuits or crisp amaretti – 4 oz

Pour the cream into a cold china bowl and whisk gently till it starts to thicken. Take care not to over-whip; you are after soft, billowing folds rather than pointy peaks. Now fold in the yogurt and the lemon curd with a large metal spoon.

Put the ratafia or amaretti in a plastic bag and bash them carefully with a heavy object – a rolling pin will do. I use a wine bottle for such tasks. You need large crumbs and small lumps – the size of gravel – rather than fine breadcrumbs. Fold them into the cream.

Scrape the mixture into 6 of those small, classic French chocolate mousse pots or espresso cups (or small ramekins will do) and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. This will give time for the biscuits to soften a little and the flavors to marry. Serve with a tiny biscuit on the side or a langue de chat.

Enough for 6

Ten-minute tortellini and a few light 'sauces'

My pasta consumption dwindles with the increasing sunshine. Ready-made tortellini, bought from Rocco, my local pasta maker, still features strongly, though at this time of year I ask for it stuffed with ricotta and spinach rather than mushrooms or meat. It's enough, I think, to drizzle over some peppery olive oil and a shaking spoon of grated Parmesan, but at other times I ring the changes.

Green olive paste, bought in jars from the gourmet shop, is an impromptu and fragrant 'sauce' in which to toss freshly drained tortellini, as are sliced, bottled artichokes with olive oil and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Both offer a light alternative to cream, cheese or tomato-based sauces. I also think this is the perfect time of year in which to toss your pasta with nothing more complex than glossy, grassy olive oil. The very best you can get your hands on.

From THE KITCHEN DIARIES copyright Nigel Slater 2006, excerpted with permission of Gotham Books, Penguin Group USA.

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