Your present Country Life cook turned 60 last month, so it seemed a good idea to indulge in three favourite dishes that stand out for me as particular moments over the past 45 years of fettling with food. You must, by now, have become used to my occasional reminiscences of times past, but these will always be moments that come to me in a twinkle, easing themselves into the brief as if it were yesterday.
Each of the three recipes here have very much evolved over the years from the originals I first learned to make; a learning curve, after all, dictates improvement or alteration if an opportunity should arise to simply make something better.
In this instance, I just wanted to make the eating nicer than it was before. But, as ever, it doesn’t always work like that; even the most practiced provider can surprise and shock when one least expects it.
To have once read that a gene-rous pinch of ground cumin would enhance a ‘traditional’ English mint sauce for Sunday roast lamb, say. Or that garlic should be a given in the true, beautifully bland mayonnaise (an instruction in one of the best selling cookery books of all time).
Worst of all, however, is the tragedy that has befallen the sticky-toffee pudding (original recipe about 1970), with its fab-ulous and hot-bubbling sticky-toffee topping, long since traduced to a sad little singular serving, its feeble butterscotch sauce poured over and scoop of ice cream as otiose interloper.
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To quote the late, great broadcaster Robert Robinson: ‘Ah, well… would that it were.’
Champignons à la Grecque
Serves 4, as a dainty first course
That bowl of cold, slightly oily mushrooms in tomato sauce you usually see displayed in the French village charcuterie is completely different to the one I learnt to make as a teenage apprentice chef-and with the one I had always known having no tomato in it at all! The following recipe is a merger of the two, all at once perky and fragrant. Rather daringly, I now like to include some large parsley-flecked croutons to soak up the oily juices.
300g cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1 small shallot
Half a teaspoon dried oregano
75ml dry vermouth
600g button mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1tspn coriander seeds
2-3tbspn olive oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
Salt and pepper
20 chunky cubes of country
bread, baked until crisp
2-3tbspn finely chopped parsley
Using a small food processor, purée together the first five ingredients until smooth. Pass through a fine sieve into a stainless-steel pan, using the back of a small ladle to extract all the juices. Add the mushrooms, bay, coriander, olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. Bring up to a simmer, quietly stew for at least 30 minutes, then decant into a dish to cool. Chill in the fridge for about an hour and have the chopped parsley ready in a shallow dish.
Spoon off some of the mushroom cooking juices into a bowl, add the croutons to it and briefly stir them around until partially sodden. Lift them out using a slotted spoon, drop them into the dish of chopped parsley and tumble them around until all nicely speckled green. Spoon the mushrooms into four pretty dishes and neatly arrange five croutons around each serving.
Taramasalata and cucumber
Makes about 30-35 canapés
A scoop of the pink stuff into the curl of a sour-cream-flavoured Pringle can soothe the end of a long day as no other snack is able to do. I’ve never turned my nose up at a pot of commercial taramasalata, as I can enjoy it as much as anyone.
But heaven knows what size the cauldrons that relentlessly generate gallon after gallon of this gloop must be, as they must surely churn around the clock.
The following recipe, how-ever, bears no relation whatsoever to the above. (Add three drops of cochineal if distressed by the look of the real thing.)
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
250g freshly smoked cod’s roe,skinned
3-4 heaped tbspn fresh white
Freshly ground black pepper
150-200ml olive oil
1-2 medium cucumbers, cut into thick slices
A little salt, only if necessary
30-35 tiny black olives, stoned
A little paprika
Place the onion, garlic and lemon juice in a food processor and purée to a paste. Tip this paste into a sieve-previously suspended over a bowl-and vigorously press out the juices using the back of a small ladle.
Discard the vegetable solids, rinse out the processor bowl and return to it the extracted juices.
Introduce the cod’s roe, breadcrumbs and pepper and pulse-purée to a rough paste. Once mixed, and with the motor running moderately, begin to introduce the olive oil in a thin stream until the mixture begins to thicken.
Once you’ve used about half of the given oil, have a little taste and then decide how much more oil you wish to add; the more oil you use, the thicker and smoother (and more bland) the taramasalata will become.
To serve, pipe (or spread) the taramasalata onto a cucumber slice, top each with a stoned black olive and sprinkle with a touch of paprika.
Marinated kipper fillets
Serves 4, as a first course
So very big was this jolly little number in the 1970s that the aspiring dinner-party hostess of the day would pronounce it as ‘tasting just like smoked salmon’. Well, of course, it doesn’t at all.
Ironically, what the dish more resembles is the French preparation known as harengs pommes à l’huile, where lightly smoked herring fillets are given a similar oil-soaked treatment before serving with warm, sliced potatoes.
8 kipper fillets
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
Juice of 2 lemons
2 red chillies, de-seeded and finely chopped
8tbspn light olive oil
There’s no need to skin the kipper fillets. Take each one, slice it quite thickly at an angle and then lay it into a deep oval dish. Cover the pieces with the sliced onion, squeeze the lemon juice over them and scatter the chopped chilli over them.
Now, carefully spoon the olive oil over them, cover with clingfilm and put into the fridge for 24 hours. Remove to room temperature one hour before serving. Eat with brown bread and butter.
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