Sunday, February 24, 2008


If you make your own bread you will have come across the proving baskets known as bannetons. Traditionally these baskets are made of wicker or cane, some sort of breathable material, and often they have a cloth liner made of calico to prevent sticking. For some reason the ones you can purchase for domestic use seem to be incredibly expensive. I have made my own from time to time, fashioned from a basket or a colander lined with a tea towel, and it didn’t work terribly well! A while ago I was given a couple of cane baskets by an artisan baker and I have been using them a lot. They give a lovely beehive finish to the loaf. But they do stick occasionally.

Lately I came across a German company called Ernst Birnbaum who make proving baskets for the bread trade and will sell them to domestic breadbakers for a small additional cost. They have a very utilitarian web site which has an English version. Their range is astonishing and the prices are extremely reasonable. It took me a while to figure out the best way to pay for my order because my bank wanted to charge a huge amount for transferring the money, but eventually I used PayPal and I would urge anyone considering the exercise to do likewise.

I expected that the order would take a few weeks to arrive but four days after the PayPal instruction went through there was a knock on my front door and there they were. I was amazed.

These proving baskets are made of wood pulp and are very light but also sturdy. I suppose if commercial bakers are using them regularly they expect them to last. They do somehow remind you of something you might have seen in a hospital! I floured mine well before the dough went in and when I turned it out there was a satisfying sucking thunnckkk as it came out perfectly. The basket leaves tiny linen like indentations on the surface of the dough which stand out nicely when you slash the top.

I ordered seven pieces in different sizes for friends and myself and the total, including delivery charges from Germany, VAT and extras came to 45 euros. Impossibly little for something that really works well. I recommend them unhesitatingly.

Ernst Birnbaum

Friday, February 22, 2008

Chard labour

I acquired an allotment last autumn, or half an allotment to be exact. The day I heard about it I went down at sunset and looked at the huge piece of ground of which I had become the custodian. It seemed to stretch into the distance and I thought I would never fill it. I went home and sketched out my plans on paper. The next day I returned, looked at the plot, looked at the paper, and suddenly it was tiny!

I had to choose between asparagus and artichokes, between salsify and spinach, between brassicas and beets; I wanted a quince tree and a mulberry, an apricot, a peach… ohhhh and I wanted it NOW!

But you have to be sensible and get a grip. The microplot, as it now appeared, is just not big enough for everything, never mind a mulberry tree, but it is plenty big for my needs which are simple. I was however desperate to plant something there and then. I planted chard, that leafy green vegetable with the pale ribs. And surprisingly it grew and thrived. Oddly, I felt bad about picking it. It was growing along nicely and it seemed a shame to cut it off. But I got over that.

My chard doesn’t look like the kind you get in shops. To be honest it looks a bit manky, with some holes and some yellow leaves, but when you twist off the roots they come away with a satisfyingly juicy crunch that bodes well. The first batch I cooked was unbelievable – fresh fresh fresh.

What to make with it: the one thing I know about chard is that the Italians love it and put it into ravioli fillings.

I have just purchased The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley and others, and I know Gillian to be a fine writer and researcher and an authority on Italian art. This book is a monumental work, the first in a series that follows in the steps of Alan Davidson’s magnificent Oxford Companion to Food. But it has nothing on chard, or swiss chard, or biete which is the Italian for chard. Nothing under vegetables, or greenery, or ravioli. It is missing. It is not there. I think this is a bit of an omission in what is supposed to be a compendium.

But it’s not hard to find a recipe for a ravioli filling that uses chard, and they are all pretty much the same.
For two people

Chard – about 4 washed and sliced handfuls
Ricotta – about three dessertspoons
1 egg
(You can add some chopped pine nuts too if you like.)

Wilt the chard in a tiny bit of water with the lid on
Drain, and press out extra water
When cool enough to handle chop finely
Add ricotta and egg to make a paste
Season generously

If you are going to make your own ravioli you really need a pasta machine. I speak as someone who disdained the things for ages, until today actually. But it is very very difficult to roll out pasta dough thin enough to make acceptable ravioli without one despite what Gillian Riley says. I know. So once the chard idea took root the next thing was a pasta machine acquisition and lo, the Great God Argos had one in his sale half price. Sometimes you just know that a thing is meant to be and that pasta machine had my name on it.

I thought it would be a bit of tin and it would fall to pieces immediately. But I was very wrong. Argos are selling a good heavy bit of chrome with a good solid clamp and I am absolutely delighted with it. But apparently they will not be stocking these things any more, which is why they are half price, so I take it that DIY pasta is now out of fashion.

Meanwhile I had a lot of fun making pasta so thin you could read the newspaper through it. I only used half of the pasta dough so tomorrow – the attachmenty thing for making tagliatelle!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Delia, for the love of God…

Last night I decided to rustle up some nice simple leek and potato soup because those were the ingredients to hand – a couple of leeks, an onion, some potatoes, some chicken stock and the remains of a tub of clotted cream.

Just in case there might have been a revolution in the recipe for leek and potato soup I had a look at Delia Online, the website of the sainted Delia Smith. I wasn’t expecting very much – I mean how complicated is it to chop a few leeks and a couple of potatoes?

Imagine my surprise when I find that she recommends using three discs of frozen mashed potato. Am I seeing things? No. The woman who had the public sweep the shelves clean of fresh cranberries a few years ago is recommending we buy frozen mashed potato. And not any old frozen mash either, but McCain’s frozen mash – she even spells it out. (Wonder how much that works out at per click?)

Honestly, how long does it take to peel a spud? Or to get someone else to do it for you?

I know that Delia’s new thing is that food has become too cheffy and programmes like Masterchef where budding cooks get their dishes trashed are off-putting to the inexperienced, but for goodness sake... there are times for cheating and a potato is not one of them.

Delia’s new book is full of this sort of stuff. It’s called How to Cheat at Cooking and it will go straight into the bestseller charts at No 1 on pre-orders alone. I don’t think Gordon Ramsay will be buying it, and neither will I.

Reasons for peeling my own potato:

I know where it came from and how far it travelled.
I know how it was raised and what its name is
I can listen to the radio and drink a glass of wine as I peel
A child can do it and it is an excellent introduction to food for them
I put the peelings on the compost heap and they nourish the ground

Any more reasons for peeling your own potato are welcome!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Potted pheasant

It’s a bit late this year, because the pheasant season has just ended, but if some time you find yourself cooking pheasants and you have some left over this is a really good way to use it up. The number of times I have carefully put the leftover legs in the fridge and never used them because by the time they are chilled they are tough and chewy and full of sinews, when I could have been making potted pheasant.

Remove as much of the flesh as you can from the leftovers and make stock with the rest. If the bird has got cold a good way is to reheat it in a low oven with the braising vegetables and a little wine, cider or water. When cool enough you can get quite a lot off the bones.

Clarify some butter by slowly heating the butter through and pouring off the clear liquid, leaving behind the milky fluid.

Whizz the pheasant in a processor with some of the reduced braising stock, some clarified butter and about half a teaspoonful of my favourite spice, mace, or the same of nutmeg, plus some black pepper.

Pack into a clean jar and pour clarified butter over the top to seal. Should keep in the fridge for several weeks.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A woodcock

Someone gave me something beautiful the other day. And I ate it.

A woodcock is a small game bird, with a wondrous long beak. Its plumage is designed more for camouflage than for showing off, but that beak is amazing. Long and slender, it is used to probe and search for earthworms, and the top half of it is flexible. You will never see them for sale so a gift from a hunter is a rare prize.

This is one of those birds that you can, apparently, eat insides and all. However the Orvis website suggests that you need to have three Martinis first – maybe to face up to the innards – and that you cook your bird for 25 minutes in a moderate oven. The Shooter said he wouldn’t eat the bits himself and I decided that neither would I. Roasted for twelve minutes in a hot oven it makes a meal for one person, with a taste that is rich and deep but not over gamey. Maybe the only time in my life I will get to taste it.

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