Cuts leeks and eats

William Clement 5 November 2009

Eating as verse: William Clement on the seasonality and poetry of food, with recipes for leeks.

Eating is so much about limitation. Deciding what to eat each day is made bewildering by the availability of, well, pretty much everything, all the time. People who like to talk about food will harp on about seasonality and locality because it is a way to confine not just what they eat but also what they’re saying about it and lend it relevance. But it’s irritating when someone tries to tell you something’s good because it’s local or in season, or a dish is good because it’s British. Thinking of seasonality and locality as categories defining the goodness or badness of food is wrong. They are the too easy tags to slide into foodie conversation.

I don’t know if you’ve been watching the new series of The Restaurant on BBC Two. A couple in their pitch to Raymond Blanc said that their restaurant concept would be to buy 90% of their produce from local sources. Another very nice-looking chap, who with his mum got eliminated last week, said he wanted to grow all his vegetables outside the restaurant on an allotment. The suggestions were sweet but quite absurd. Quite apart from the unnecessary difficulties arising from the ideas in practice, would the food actually taste better? Both received a justly withering Gallic scowl.

The thing is that on the one hand, you wouldn’t be without Spanish oranges, pineapples from the Caribbean and bananas from South America. On the other, tomatoes from Holland, pork from Denmark, apples from South Africa are easily and wisely spurned. British ones in season and out, if they’re available and you happen to feel like them, are superior. It’s quite nice to have a steak from the beef they’ve been raising on common land in Cambridge, if only for the novelty (and if you can get hold of some), but whether it matches good, well-hung Scottish beef is questionable. Local eating is a tricky thing to do and get right. Sometimes it seems like a good idea, at others fussy and belligerently misguided.

Seasonal eating is different. Sometimes I think of it and what it means, if you’ll forgive the analogy, a bit like verse – perhaps because I’ve spent a bit too much time reading Derek Attridge. Or not enough. The temporal, restrictive quality of the passing seasons liberates you by giving limits in which to think. Judiciously kept they don’t constrict so much as direct your attention to what’s good and what’s right. It feels right to be eating purple sprouting broccoli just now, lovely little roast pheasants and bread sauce, robust soups made of the new roots and alliums. Eating with the seasons produces and fortifies a kind of rhythm so that you feel the year in your food, its progress, its processes and circularity. Or at least I feel I do. There’s the expectation of culinary high points and low points – their repetition and inevitability.

In food we can cook and eat convention and tradition. Festive foods – this weekend there’ll be toffee apples, blackened marshmallows and potatoes in their skins you hope will be smoky from being baked in foil by a bonfire – are full of the associative, sentimental colour you need at grey times of the year. Only a hundred and fifty Christmas roast geese separate me and Bob Cratchit – and the gorgeous meat is the same. It’s all so much more poetical than, for example, the random and quite prosaic excitement of being able to obtain fresh strawberries in November. But eating seasonally like this has also the virtue of enshrining caprice. Blackberries have appeared so often in my diet the last month, this week I’m dying for a handful of raspberries in an apple crumble. Happily the frozen ones are excellent and, whim satisfied, I can return reinvigorated to blackberries and making things out of elderberries and walnuts I’ve stolen from people’s trees.

As a footnote I should explain why I wrote this. I can already hear the terse murmur of friends. “Will, shut up about your finger already!” The trouble with having knives made of German steel and not very much time for lunch is you’re liable to have the odd, careless slip. This week I cut the end of my finger off and I’ve had my arm in a sling. It made me think about limitations – not just those of the seasons.

The following dishes are very simple and easily made – more importantly eaten – with one arm. As the days get colder they’re the kind of thing you want to eat when only something warming you can eat with a fork or spoon will do. Leeks come into season this month and they’re a useful allium for the monomanual. Unlike onions they are easily tackled by a gentle hacking with a large knife – no fiddly skins. Just watch out for grit. They have fragrant sweetness very lovely in soups and pies, the soffritos or mirepoix for fish dishes, or simply as an accompaniment to roasted meats. Some carefully made white sauce is good with them, scented with a little bay and parsley.

Recipes

Chicken isn’t often enough poached, boiled, pot-roasted. A whole boiled chicken, in the manner of Henry IV’s poule au pot is wonderful with a pokey little sauce, gribiche being most frequent. The gelatinous cooking stock and leftover chicken is the basis of some fine dishes.

Chick en and leek pie

For this I separate the leg joints from the crown of a chicken. Simmer until just cooked, removing the crown first. Gently soften three or four smallish leeks in butter. Add half a pint or so of white sauce (below), a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and either chopped parsley or dried sage. Be generous. The idea is that there is plenty of everything, that it is of good quality and that it is strongly flavoured (season heavily). Little else matters in a good pie, apart from the pastry.  The recipe for rough puff pastry is below. Roll it out; tuck it around the filling in a pie dish. Egg wash and bake at 180 for half an hour. Serve with seasonal purple sprouting broccoli, and English mustard.

Rough puff

This is very flaky and buttery, but not so cloying as real puff. Rub an ounce of lard into half a pound of flour with a generous pinch of salt. Cube three or four ounces of cold butter and put them with the flour. Add cold water until the mixture will cohere – leaving the cubes of butter intact. Chill for half an hour. Beat out the mixture with a rolling pin – it should be quite hard. Fold in three like a letter. Beat out and repeat the folding and beating twice. Use immediately or chill.

White sauce to go with leeks

Bring milk to a simmer with a bay leaf, stalks of parsley, peppercorns, salt. Leave to stand. Make a roux, allowing an ounce or two each of butter and milk per pint of milk: add gradually, stirring constantly and cook out as classic bechamel.

Leek and chicken broth

Use the chicken stock, some leeks, and anything from little carrots, parsnip, turnip, potato to produce a fragrant broth that, with its earthy roots (without requisite meat), is slightly reminiscent of Welsh cowl.

Prawn and leek risotto

Use leeks and garlic as a soffrito, frying gently in butter only, adding wine, and then the rice. Finish cooking with the chicken stock. Add raw prawns near the end of cooking. No cheese. Serve with parsley, a little cayenne and a squeeze of lemon.

William Clement