Commonplace, Vol. 1, Issue 14

In which the writer gathers up links, repairs a frying pan, recommends another newsletter, and talks about seasonal food.

Hello! It’s been a while, for which I apologise; ongoing job-hunting is taking a lot of my attention and available spoons (and a temporary job lugging boxes and bottles in a warehouse up to Christmas is going to eat time instead). This issue gathers up a bunch of food-related links, makes a recommendation for another newsletter subscription, and ambles off into a discussion of seasonal food.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble, has a Patreon page at Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (currently constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

I haven’t tried this next recipe; usually when I want to make chocolate chip cookies, “tomorrow” is not the timeframe I have in mind. But I admire the depth of research and experimentation that went into developing the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. I’m very much in favour of experimentation myself, and I feel quite strongly that it’s the best way to learn. Reading the outcomes of other people’s experiments is also useful, of course, but even for a text-focused creature like myself, there’s little substitute for actually experiencing the thing. And in cookery, it’s ongoing experimentation, and observing the stuff that didn’t go right that will enable you to improvise.

I’ve re-discovered this recently in attempts to make a home-made version of the Chinese takeaway chicken curry; I was able to sit and think for a few minutes about the texture and taste of the sauce, and then fairly confidently go about making it. You take chopped onions and root ginger, fry them gently for a while, add some curry powder, a couple of tablespoons of flour, garlic powder, black pepper, cumin and turmeric, cook for a moment or two so the spices get some heat, add some chicken stock, and let the whole thing cook down for 20 minutes or so. You can then put in your grilled or pan-fried chicken, or whatever other meat or vegetables you want in there, and it’s pretty much bang on. My first attempt didn’t include the turmeric, and as a result it wasn’t quite right. I recommend plain basmati rice to go with it - interestingly, the Tilda brand, available from Tesco, doesn’t benefit at all from the pre-washing that other kinds do.

Apparently plain ol’ vanilla is now the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron (which itself has fallen in price). The variability of spice prices is nearly invisible to most people, I reckon - who but the most obsessed among us remembers how much a jar of any given stuff is from one purchase to the next? But once you start tracking the details, it’s fascinating. For instance, ginger, garlic, and chilli are rapidly rising in price, because of shipping bottlenecks arising from COVID-19. This was misreported in some coverage (UK tabloids, mostly) as being due to a poor harvest, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue. Several supermarket chains have apparently refused to comment about the embarrassing lack of ginger on the shelves as people look for it for Christmas baking. Oddly, mace is back on the shelves in Tesco for the first time in at least two years. It’s not clear to me why it was ever missing, since nutmeg - from the same fruit - was never in short supply. The bitter orange which Nina uses for gingerbread isn’t available here anyway, but if it was, it’d also be fluctuating in price - citrus harvests have been difficult this year, also due to the plague.

Cee has been growing mushrooms - I tried one kit, but it went rather wrong - and I’ve been reading about growing black morels in firepits. Apparently they’re super-sensitive to what’s in the ashes; it has to be pure hardwood and nothing but hardwood. The idea of simulating forest fire environments is a little ironic in 2020, but picking over the remnants of the actual ones for mushrooms isn’t the most comfortable idea either.

Speaking of firewood, though: my best and oldest cast-iron pan had its wooden handle wear out (or, actually, char out) - it had crumbled to almost nothing, and needed to be replaced. I don’t have a lathe, so I had to whittle one, and a chunk of log otherwise destined for the fire was the best option. So it went from this:

to this:

to this.

(with the old charred one for illustrative purposes). I re-seasoned the pan while I had it in pieces, too. The whole process was very gratifying, especially the bit where I had to drill the central shaft, through which a threaded metal rod goes, from both ends by eye and got it perfectly.

The newsletter recommendation is for Stained Page News, which is all about and only about cookbooks. I rarely buy cookbooks per se anymore - although I’m considering acquiring Nigella Lawson’s latest - but this is well-written material about the ebbs and flows of the cookery publication market, and it’s worth reading. There’s been a huge number of new books during the pandemic, of course, as every cookbook writer sat down and got on with it, and everyone who’d ever thought about publishing did so as well.

And so to seasonal foods. We’ve bottled the cider and the elderberry wine we set going earlier in the year. We did lose some of the wine to mold arising from a not-quite-sealed demijohn cork, but the rest of it looks good. The cider is as yet bone-dry and quite sour, but it’ll get a few months to mature in the bottles, and if it stayed that dry, I wouldn’t be unhappy. The elderberry is still a little thin to the taste, but will probably be a lot better in about six months time; we have a small bottle to try after three or four, to see how it’s doing. There’s a sloe gin in the back of one of the cupboards, which should be good for Christmas, and at least some of the damson/bullace ‘cheese’ is sitting in the fridge, and should be at its best around the same time. Nina made Christmas puddings - two small ones - in the last week, and they’re also sitting and waiting.

We celebrate a sort of secular Christmas, from cultural shape and the inertia of memory. My family weren’t great at the season through most of the years I can remember, and there were many years where there was workshop stuff going on up to Christmas Eve - indeed, we once delivered a newly made rocking horse to a customer at 3am on Christmas Day. The food aspect was particularly variable - we would usually have turkey, but everything else was variable depending on how much my father was in the mood to cook.

That variability has continued in adulthood; we’ve sometimes had turkey and sometimes not, and hams, sides of salmon, fish platters, and various other things have featured. When we’re in Finland, or when Nina’s mother and aunt are here (as they’ll be this year), we have the traditional Finnish Christmas foods, usually also with additions. So there isn’t really a single tradition we stick with.

The Irish Christmas Meal isn’t as crisply defined as people think it is, in any case. Most people of my generation would say that it includes turkey (roast), ham (baked), potatoes (roast and mashed), carrots, brussels sprouts, stuffing, and gravy, followed (possibly some hours later) by Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies. But I guarantee you some Irish person reading this is going “wait, what about the [thing we always had at home]?” There’s a peculiarity of Irish life (again, specifically for my generation and older) which includes remarkably little exposure to other people’s family habits; many Irish people will only have been in a dozen different people’s houses through their entire childhood (maybe a few more if there’s a big, close family), and they’ll often have eaten exactly the same Christmas meal in exactly the same house for 18 years or so growing up. So a lot of things which are assumed to be traditional everywhere are actually unique to one household or set of siblings or cousins.

Some things which are “traditional” aspects of the meal for Irish people I know: prawn cocktail starters; cranberry sauce; American gravy (the white, roux-based kind); smoked salmon; baked salmon; croissants; nut loaf; boiled cabbage; stir-fried cabbage; parsnips; mashed turnip; green bean casserole (almost certainly the same as the American Thanksgiving dish); trifle; Danish butter biscuits; Vienetta ice cream; bread sauce; goose (instead of turkey); melon (I think as a starter); spiced beef (a Cork thing, as far as I can make out); and in one ex-workmate’s house, home-made fish fingers.

I suspect that these isolated traditions - or indeed, the concept of a completely traditional, same-every-year Christmas meal - are on the way out at this stage, due to a combination of TV and film exposure to other (largely American) menus, magazines extolling the merits of something other than the usual to bored cooks, and the simple effect of more complex family structures with emigration, immigration, divorce, and greater distance between households. I don’t think this is a bad thing, either; I gather from a good few acquaintances that the stresses of producing The Family Christmas As It Was When We Were Kids are second only to moving house. Indeed, I had a conversation with a member of the Defence Forces at a conference wherein she noted that Christmas in the army in Liberia had been less stressful than cooking at home.

Our table this year will have the major components of the Finnish Christmas meal, with additions of various kinds from elsewhere. Because I’ll be working up to Christmas Eve, I won’t be doing much of it, although I’ll see about making some contributions in the evenings coming up to it.

I’d like to hear about your traditional foods - the more so if there’s something in there that you think is unusual.

This issue has been brought to you by an eased lockdown, temporary employment, some actual frosts, a visit to the other St. John’s Wood, and cats of increasing size. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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