Saturday, January 20, 2018

Strawberries and rhubarb

When I was growing up, we did of course eat both strawberries and rhubarb - but never together. Strawberries were cut up and sprinkled with icing sugar. Rhubarb was stewed or cooked with apple under a crumble topping.
          So the first time I saw a recipe for cooking them together, I was a bit dubious. But I shouldn't have been. They truly are a delicious and beautifully coloured combination, with the rhubarb adding an invigorating sharpness to the familiar sweetness of the strawberries.
           Hunting online for some kind of summer cooked fruit to serve with slices of lemon cake for dessert, I found a strawberry and rhubarb compote. I had a punnet of strawberries which needed using, and my pot-grown rhubarb (yet another successful garden item I owe to my friend Ali, who brought me a superb plant) was flourishing despite the drought. I do love plants that behave as they should, despite my less-than-zealous care, and don't give me any trouble. (Well, okay, I do need to give it a handful of Nitrophoska about once a month, watered in, make sure the soil doesn't dry out, and feed it a weak Epsom salts solution if the leaves go a bit yellow - but that's all perfectly simple and straightforward, because I was told exactly what to do.)
         Experimenting with the easiest way to slice a stalk of rhubarb, I've discovered it's best to rest the stalk on the chopping board so that the side facing away from you is rounded and the one facing you is flat with the two edges, and cut across it in that position - the knife seems to cope best with its odd shape that way.

The recipe is quite flexible - it depends on how much fruit you've got. The oroginal was for a rather large quantity, 500 g of each fruit. My punnet of strawberries had about 260 g of fruit in it, so I picked enough stalks to make up roughly the same weight of rhubarb and adjusted the other ingredients to fit. This gives enough cooked fruit to serve 4 to 6 people, depending on what else you serve with it.

Strawberry and rhubarb compote
        260 g (one punnet) fresh strawberries, neatly topped
        260 g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2 cm pieces
         3 Tbsps sugar
             (depending on how tart the fruit is - 
                taste when it's half cooked and see if it needs more)
  Pinch of salt
  Zest from 1/2 a navel orange
  3 Tbsps rosĂ© wine or port
  3-4 Tbsps triple sec or Cointreau (you can then leave out the orange peel)

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and add a scant 1/4 cup of water. Set over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar. 

Cook gently, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a very small amount of water (or a tiny bit more alcohol, but taste-test - don't overdo it) if the mixture seems too dry. You want most of the liquid to evaporate and the fruit to cook through and soften, without completely losing its shape and texture.

Put into a glass or china bowl to cool. If not serving immediately, cover and put in the fridge (the flavour does seem to deepen if you cook it a few hours before serving). Take it out of the fridge an hour before serving, so that it isn't too chilled. 

You can serve this with a piece of dessert cake, as I did, or with cream, plain yoghurt, sorbet, or plain vanilla ice cream. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

A ham sandwich

At this time of year, we usually have at least a bit of leftover ham. It gets made into a few special dishes - one favourite is Claudia Roden's Antico Risotto Sabaudo, with ham, cheese and white wine. But most of it gets eaten with salad or in sandwiches.
    My neighbour Frances recently spent some time in a retirement home, recuperating from a hip operation.  Being the Christmas season, she did get to eat ham there. Unfortunately, it was served warmed up and covered in brown gravy. So I brought her fresh little ham sandwiches, and she devoured them. It set me off thinking about other ham sandwiches in my life...

My husband always hoped to find
A plain ham sandwich to go with his coffee:
White bread, butter, ham, a dab of mustard.
But all they ever had were flat panini
And giant croissants stuffed with cheese and bacon.

The year after he died, I went to Auckland
To see my sister. At the airport Wishbone
Lined up beside the lamb with green mint jelly
And the chicken with watercress and cranberry
Was a proper old-fashioned ham sandwich
With real butter. I carried it off
To a quiet corner of the concourse
Disentangled it from its plastic armour
And bit into its long exposed soft side.

I was seven again, sitting across from my mother
On a plywood chair at a white Formica table.
Hard to say who was enjoying it more:
Her, out on the town, her string bag bulging
With small exciting unnecessary parcels
Or me, freed from school for two whole weeks
Plunging deeply into the heady pleasure
Of a soft ham sandwich and a fizzy drink
In the neon light of Farmer’s Bargain Basement.