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At the heart of the Hollies stood a crooked wooden column, splitting and hunched under a thousand years (it seemed to me) of weight. To it were pinned postcards from all over the world, sent to this corner of Essex … Continue reading

Bacon, kale and cannellini bean stew

I’m woken most mornings by a foghorn. It starts quietly, a sort of subtle parp in my sub-conscience, and builds inexorably towards a blaring, deafening need. It drowns out groggy thoughts of painkillers, Evian and hot water bottles. My foghorn, as for so many others, is bacon.

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A subtle parp

My personal preference is for the smoky, fatty type either cut thin and cooked to shattering point or, as in this case, thick lardons layered saltpetre pink and creamy, unctuous white. With the soft orange buzz of pimenton picante, sweetly fried garlic and the slight bitter bite of kale, this makes for a restorative, satisfying and, I suspect, rather healthy lunch.

This was more or less a fridge slut thrown together for a Tuesday lunch following a surprise birthday party which I can remember until 1am and the third tequila. My back teeth were trying to escape and I had a twitch in both eyes, so as always you’ll have to forgive the lack of accuracy in measurements.

Bacon, kale and cannellini bean stew

  • A little olive oil
  • A handful of smoky bacon lardons, or three chopped bacon rashers
  • 1 tin of cannellini beans
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • A big handful of kale
  • Two fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon(ish) pimenton picante
  • Curly-leaf parsley to finish
  • Good meaty stock. I used about half a pint to three quarters of a pint.

I actually made this in a wok, because my kitchen remains woefully understocked, but really one should put a thick bottomed casserole over a medium heat. Add a good drizzle of olive oil – no need for the extra virgin stuff – before throwing in your lardons. Keep them moving and tumbling over one another for a minute or so.

Add your roughly chopped garlic cloves and around one teaspoon of pimenton picante. Keep stirring, ensuring that the the garlic does not burn. After five or six minutes, everything will be dark with pimenton and the fat on the lardons should start crisping up a little.

Add your tin of tomatoes and two thirds of your stock, season and turn the heat right down. Stir and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes or so, occasionally stirring to ensure the bacon and garlic doesn’t stick and burn. The sauce will thicken and reduce. Add your beans and kale, and a splash more stock. Stir and simmer until the kale wilts and darkens.

Garnish with curly-leaf parsley and serve with a piece of crusty bread, a glass of water and two paracetamol.

Italian sausage with a honey, clove and fennel sauce

On wine-soaked midnight forays to the back of my parents’ fridge there are two grails. The first is the occasional jar of chargrilled artichoke hearts set in fat, begging to be spooned into a frying pan with a liberal sprinkle of black pepper and a garlic clove wantonly, drunkenly mauled through the dreaded pewter crusher and served over a toasted slice from a granary loaf baked by the drag queen who mans (?) the ovens at the weird shop on the corner.

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A pint of sausages is more or less my equivalent of the Holy Grail, in as much as it’s a cup I really want.

 The second, in all its righteous glory, is the coiled flesh proboscis of the peppery, fennely Italian sausage, rich with red wine and little pellets of fat that bubble and squeak as they cook and send jets of purest molten FLAVOUR searing across the most alcohol pickled tongue. It squats, huge and emasculating in one corner of the fridge, half-hidden behind the fruit bowl, merely peeking its blotchy curves into view. With its vac-pack slit open over the sink, it slithers out and uncoils. Feel its heft, smell that fennel, get the fucking grill up to heat and STAT.

O’course, this wouldn’t be much of a recipe if it had just three steps (1. Grill. 2. Salivate. 3. Devour) so I feel compelled to pretty things up a little, and we will do it with a recipe loosely based on a month-long jaunt around the Greek islands with a vague notion of researching the first hints of a book. It was a largely fruitful experience, and I brought back with me the following:

  1. A new found and, as far as I can tell, entirely solitary love for the rocket-fuel raki.
  2. A trick with aforementioned rocket-fuel involving lighting cigarettes off my own flaming finger.
  3. A brief but rather lovely sense of inner peace.
  4. A tan.
  5. A head full of unusual Greek recipes so far removed from the limp facsimiles of British canteens and cafes as to seem not Greek at all.

Having fallen asleep on the Syros bus as we left Ermoupolis – a town which tumbles down three hills from three churches towards a typically Swarovski sea – we woke by some silent sandy beach and in panic clattered to our feet and off the bus. After a quick dip and brief, futile attempts to orientate ourselves, we collapsed into the soft white sand for a day of dedicated stillness under the huge Aegean sun. Hours later, and we were hungry, thirsty and discombobulated by over-exposure despite honest attempts at finding shade and comfort. No dust cloud and attendant bus crested the ridge that forms this natural bay, and we were forced to admit defeat. The unpromising taverna that makes up the resort seemed to be staffed solely by an ancient dog which lay immobile at the front step, needlessly tethered to a railing.

Menus were thrown in front of us with one word – “English?” – and we were left to our own devices. But the food…god, the food. Saganaki, cheese fried golden brown and served with thick syrup and lemon juice, recalled Sardinian salty white cheese tortelloni served with honey. Calamari was butter soft and perfectly crisp, whilst dry rusks form perfect vessels for a full-fat creamy feta-like cheese, startlingly bright red onion and plump, fresh mint and aromatic thyme. But pork chops with bubbled brown fat and soft, moist flesh was the main focus, drizzled with a sweet, spicy sauce of pork juices, clove, fennel seed and honey with a hint of oak and lavender. It is this sauce, deeply complex and a gauntlet laid to the naysayers to Greek cuisine, which caught the imagination and it is this sauce which I hope to emulate.

Italian sausage with a honey, clove and fennel sauce

  • One long, coiled Italian sausage, or four separate sausages
  • About half a pint pork broth, or chicken stock
  • About ten fennel seeds
  • One clove
  • One teaspoon good honey – acacia or lavender honey is best
  • Half a lemon
  • One clove of garlic
  • Black pepper
  • Salt
  • Olive oil

Heat a little olive oil in a medium sized, thick-bottomed saucepan over a low heat. With the flat side of a knife, squish the fennel seeds and clove and toss them in the warm oil. Don’t get too much of a sizzle on, but you should be getting a nice aroma out of the pan. Zest the half lemon into the oil – you’ll get a hit of that citric scent straight away. Smash the garlic clove with the flat of your knife, then grind it into something like a paste. Being the slovenly domestic disaster that I am, I prefer to just use the back of a knife with a little salt to provide the necessary rough surface and save on washing up, but a pestle and mortar will probably do the job a little more efficiently.

Chop your sausage into bitesize pieces, being careful not to squash the pieces too much. They should be about the size of your first thumb joint – any bigger and they won’t cook properly. Add the sausage and garlic to the pan and turn up to a medium heat. Stir regularly to avoid burning the garlic. Once the sausage is nicely browned on the outside, stir in the honey, the juice from the half lemon and black pepper. Once the lemon and honey are combined, add a little pork broth or stock at a time, topping up each time the liquid starts to bubble. Once all the liquid’s added, put on the lid and turn down the heat to simmer for around 15 minutes before removing the lid for another 10.

Serve with al dente rice studded with toasted pine nuts and a drink you should know better than to ingest.

Somewhere in the Balkans – 2009

“Drink. It is absolutely necessary that you drink.”

Yanni, the Hungarian train guard, is laughing as I stand atop a sticky formica table, trying to surf the queasily rocking train as it storms through some deep, wooded corner of the Balkans. His accent has become curiously less thick over the course of 3 bottles of harsh red wine and the restaurant car is empty but for us and an old Finnish couple who have been tossing back shots of homebrew rocket-fuel poured from a plastic iced tea bottle. I tried to engage them in conversation halfway through the second bottle, but they stayed stoney in the face of my opening gambit – a piece of trivia about cranberries learned from a Snapple cap.

I learned all I know from Snapple caps & reruns of the Simpsons. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the good men & women of the Snapple Research Institute

It’s 3am in limbo and I can’t sleep. The bunks on this Soviet-era locomoting hulk are barely big enough for a child, let alone my elongated frame. I was smoking a bootlegged Malboro out of the window when Yanni introduced himself. Smoking at 100mph in the Balkan penumbra is a queer experience as the thick plumes of oily smoke are snatched from rapidly numbing lips. He told me not to bother exhaling out of the window.

“I’m in charge. They only give me the night shift so I don’t scare the Americans.”

He’s undeniably disconcerting. Patchily shaved, he leers at every woman who passes the open door with unabashed lecherous intent. In the interests of preserving my drunkeness I say nothing but cringe inwardly at every inappropriate comment or glance. Dilute the distaste with more of that “rustic” red.

Yanni shared his lunchbox with me. Tupperwared macaroni swam in a salted white cheese sauce punctuated by crisp chunks of pig fat and skin. “Is this a Hungarian delicacy?” “Fuck Hungarian food. This is pure Italian.” I have my doubts, but hold my tongue. Admittedly, culinary Budapest had been less than inspiring – with the notable exception of astonishing golden tokaj served with dried strips of aromatic wild boar.

The train shudders to a halt and I tumble from my vantage point. Luckily my fall’s broken by Yanni who shouts something in Hungarian & gives me a look like murder.

“Are we here?”
“Bastard.”
“Sorry. Doesn’t answer my question though.”
“We’re not there yet. This is the border. Go get your passport.”

I nod and extricate myself from the tangle of limbs and overcoats. As I walk back to the cabin, furiously concentrating on avoiding the walls and windows, I can hear doors banging open behind me and boots clattering down linoleum corridors, a fact which injects some previously absent urgency and sobriety into the situation.  I hurry on past the window where Yanni and I had first made acquaintance and duck into our cramped cabin. Digging through my bags, I find my passport stuffed inside a shoe which has, in turn, become wedged in a skinny trouser leg. Ignoring the obvious questions, I turn and brandish it as the dull grey muzzle of a border patrol rifle pushes the sliding door open.

The border guard’s face is in shadow, but he’s enormous – at least my height, but twice as broad shouldered and swelling out of his sleeves as he pushes a mass of dark hair out of his eyes. He grunts “passport” and takes mine in a leathery paw. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he unholsters a torch from his hip at the same time and shines it into my face. I reel back a little and trip arse over elbow.

Sprawled on the cramped bunk, legs akimbo, I smile meekly up at him. He nods and tosses my passport into my lap.

Spring Rolls

By Zeus I love crispy stuff. There’s something about a salty, brittle crunch which carries enormous appeal. Maybe it’s the feeling of shattering something beautiful, maybe it’s the flood of flavour that almost always accompanies that moment. Maybe it’s just that everything crispy is usually fantastically unhealthy, appealing to my self-destructive side.

This woman probably went through a delicious crackling stage before becoming a kind of profoundly unsexy organ wallet

These spring rolls are a compromise between that most base of desires and my almost-but-not-quite-unashamedly metrosexual desire to not become a cratered doughball, drowning my promise in deep-fried goodness. Therefore they are baked. This method takes a little longer, but consider that to be time you’d lose to high cholesterol if you’d gone the deep-frying route.

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