Heat another pan quickly…

I have a feeling this blog has previously referred to my traditional celebration of the end of the year, largely (assuming it has indeed occurred) as an excuse to shoe-horn in a reference to a Dorset Knob.  There was never a plan to start a new tradition, it grew out of the older – date independent – practice of the Fish Supper where I (as Fish – see a very old blog post for an explanation) would prepare a dinner for some friends.  One year, which must be at least a decade ago, a Fish Supper for a couple of friends coincided with New Year’s Eve and inadvertently a new tradition was kindled with the Flame Imperishable. From that day, we have alternated the hosting of New Year’s Eve and offering a 6(ish) course menu of food with appropriate wine (and other alcoholic beverages as appropriate) starting at 6(ish – GofaDM loves a theme) with a vague aim of finishing around midnight.  These have definitely represented the best endings to years of my life – and the driving of a mistletoe stake through the heart of 2018 was one of the very finest.

Last night, it was my turn to host and I like to use these occasions to experiment with new recipes or at least add a new twist to an old favourite: it feels appropriate to celebrate the ending of one year and birthing of the next with something new (well, that or a killing).  In consequence, ever since returning home on Boxing Day, some portion of my brain and body have been devoted to planning and preparing the bill of fare for yestere’en and this morning’s fast breaking.  For me, these modest pains were repaid handsomely with as convivial an evening and morning as a chap could ask for – the food even came out pretty well!  I am definitely getting better at not massively over-catering the evening and, I think as we age, we are growing better at moderating our alcoholic indulgence.  I shall now attempt to make the menu entertaining (but am prepared for abject failure), lest any readers wish to recreate the experience of seeing in the New Year with their favourite author and, that option being unavailable, willing to accept me as an exceeding inferior substitute…

We started with a salad of comice pear, two types of cress (“water” and “mustard and” but no “ip”), chopped nuts and fried halloumi cuboids.  This was rather a fine combination of flavours and textures (though I shall be finding strands of cress of days!) and may have to become part of my quotidien, guest-free dining life (though it does make a bit of a mass of the frying pan).  There is also something about the smell of mustard-and-cress which takes me back to my childhood (unlike Marcel Proust, madeleines formed no part of my youth and have only rarely appeared in my soi-disant adult life).  The salad was tossed, and the halloumi glazed, in a rather fine dressing which caused me to purchase a new – and rather beautiful – bottle of sherry vinegar which I like to think William Morris would approve as being both beautiful and useful.

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A certain Moorish influence?

I then prepared “open” spinach and ricotta ravioli – made by cutting a sheet of lasagna in half and propping one half rather vaguely atop the “filling”-covered base.  I feel this aspect needs some work presentationally as the cooked half  sheets of lasagna had very firm ideas about how they would perch that did not coincide with my own.  I also feel that adding the ricotta cold to the creation didn’t quite work with the other warm ingredients, though I have yet to come up with a plan to pre-warm it.  This recipe gives us our title as while the “chef” was busy preparing several other components of the dish, he is suddenly commanded to “quickly heat another pan”.  Whilst I followed this direction, I can’t help feeling that an earlier request to start slowly heating the pan in readiness for later deployment would have been a solid basis for a less stressful algorithm.

We then moved to halibut with an orange and courgette salad.  This had no issues, though it is worth noting that the author of the recipe that formed the basis for this course rather over-estimated the appeal of its courgette element.  On the plus side, it did provide an opportunity to showcase my legendary courgette slicing skills (achieved without the use of a mandolin and while retaining my full complement of fingers).

Three courses in, seemed a good opportunity for a break to allow a little time for digestion.  My friends (among many who have the misfortune of being my friends on Facebook – though in my defense, the vast majority will have requested this dubious privilege and have had to pass the test of surviving a real-life conversation with me) have seen many an image of the Guide Dog and having travelled from out of town wished to see this beacon (icon, even) of beer, good company and (often) excellent music making.  So, we toddled down the hill into Bevois Valley for some well-kept beer, good company and, as luck would have it, some very fine music making from a session marking the sashaying of 2018 into the history books (probably into one of its more lurid chapters).  I believe my friends left suitably convinced both of the Guide Dog‘s credentials and that I have not been mis-representing its charms on-line.

Returning, it was time for the desserts and the cheeseboard.  Having learned the importance of cooking later courses before the chef becomes too inebriated to follow a recipe, these had been prepared the day before and only needed to be served.  For the first time, I made individual summer puddings for the first dessert.  Given my inability to source (or indeed, say) dariole moulds in Southampton on Sunday they were created in ramekins (for the avoidance of doubt, not my pet name for one – or more – male sheep).  I was a little concerned about their structural integrity lacking the buttressing bread walls of a full-scale summer pudding – however, they did not instantly collapse but retained their shape rather successfully.  The current working theory is that pectin worked its polysaccharide structural magic during the weighting and chilling phase of their creation.  I cannot speak to its utility in larger scale construction projects…

The second desert marked my first attempt at a semi freddo, which was flavoured with fragmented chocolate torrone (and added hazelnuts) and so, by chance, seasonally appropriate.  The creation of this substance made very heavy use of my available mixing bowls and whisks: it used all of my bowls (including one that is lucky to see even an annual outing normally) and really required at least one more whisk than I own.  Still, I muddled through and poured the thick, creamy liquid produced from all this beating and broader wrist-based action into a tray and thence the freezer in the hope that something at least semi-edible would emerge.  I can report that what emerged was exceedingly edible – though would probably not be considered the healthiest of dishes for everyday consumption and should not form part of a calorie-controlled diet.  Given just how fine it was, I shall probably want to make it again and may invest in another whisk (the bootless extravagance!).  It did have the unexpected side-effect of inducing significant torpor in all that consumed it – which did add a little challenge to our subsequent assault on the cheeseboard.   I am thinking of marketing my semi freddo as an alternative to Xanax for those who (like myself) regularly manage to elude the arms of Morpheus.

Troopers that we are, we did manage to make modest inroads into the 2/3π radians of Bigod Brie brought by my friends and the unexpectedly toothsome Cote Hill Lindum that was my randomly-selected contribution to the board.  The accompanying knäckebröd (less filthy than it sounds) from Peter’s Yard was also a new signing and will definitely see some more caps in 2019!

By this point, midnight was almost upon us so we listened to the obligatory scaffolding-obscured chimes of one of this country’s larger grandfather clocks and made disparaging remarks about the modern evil of “too many fireworks” (one of the many joys of being middle-aged) before turning in.  This was my first use of the new sofabed acquired during the summer and I can report that (a) I recalled sufficient of the instructions provided at the time of its delivery to erect it and (b) it provided a very comfy resting place.

For breakfast, I “prepared” a cheese loaf which kneaded, proved and baked itself while we slumbered (well, in my case except during the kneading as we were sharing the same room, my garret is pretty tiny).  When I did properly awake and cracked open my eyelids, I was presented with a glorious view of the crescent moon with bright Lucifer camped just to her left: not a bad start to the day/month/year.

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Lucifer (bottom left) welcomes a terrible human being to 2019

When the still-warm loaf was first sliced, I was slightly concerned to discover that the significant quantity of input cheese was entirely invisible in the output loaf.  Fortunately, while there was no sight of the cheddar, its flavour had suffused the bread very successfully: a thoroughly decadent way to start January.

After a constitutional around the Common, dodging the Park Runners, breakfast concluded with US-style (i.e. fluffy rather than overly keen to carry firearms) blueberry pancakes which offered a further work-out for whisk, wrist and mixing bowls.

2019 now safely begun, more normal culinary service – except for a rather modest haul of left-overs – will be resumed.

Acquiring a little Polish

No, I have not been out to buy some Mr Sheen (not even, Baby Mr Sheen – Young Master Sheen?) – but as previously mentioned did spend the first half of the week in Poland. Unusually for a business trip, I did manage to see slightly more of my destination than its airport, an international hotel and the road(s) that link them.

My invite came courtesy of my willingness to harangue a crowd any time, any place, anywhere.  I suppose I would have to admit that the unfortunate crowds can’t find the whole experience too objectionable as I do keep receiving invites to deliver more of my schtick (and the reviews are usually decent, though I blame Stockholm syndrome for this).  This particular crowd whilst not my largest, was still a decent size and one of the most senior and by the far tyhe most international ever subjected to my feeble attempts at vocal wit (cunningly disguised as electricity industry insight).

The gig took place in Krakow, which is a rather beautiful city – though it did its best to hide this fact behind almost constant (very cold) fog.  Still, I did catch a brief glimpse of the Wawel Castle and even managed a chilly stroll to the Market Square.  The fog did reveal a useful insight for the aviator (perhaps a slightly grand title for a chap flying with easyJet) which is to pick a flight that arrives and lands around 1pm – this seems to offer the least fog and so minimises delays (~1 hour each way, a far better performance than most of the other attendees).  Given that Krakow airport is largely a building site at the moment (though I’m sure it will be lovely, eventually) it is not the ideal place to spend a long delay – the seating was pretty uncomfortable (almost as uncomfortable as easyJet’s seating).

The event offered a Gala Dinner on Monday night, which was held in a salt mine – some 135m below ground.  This involved a descent in a very cramped and basic lift (but we were VIPs, normal visitors have to use the 800+ steps) and a stroll through tunnels to reach the particular cavern where we were being hosted.  Dinner was great fun – entertaining company plus folk dancing and a comedic (and pulchritudinous) string quartet.  I saw very few peacocks whilst in Poland (none, in fact) and the folk dancing gave a clue as to why – traditional Polish garb requires a surprisingly large number of peacock feathers.  I suspect any local peafowl have become very skilled at hiding!

Peacock danger

Peacock danger

You will be pleased to know that I was released from the mine and, on Tuesday night, I once again went out for dinner – this time in town (rather than beneath it) to the gloriously named Kogel Mogel.  This involved a smaller group – but still contained someone from Northern Ireland, a Canadian, two Colombians, a Swede and an Anglo-American (plus me).

Before travelling abroad, I like to have at least some simple vocabulary – I view it as a basic courtesy as well as potentially helpful.  I didn’t know any Polish at all, so before this trip I attempted to (more-or-less) acquire the skill to say “please”, “thank you” and “receipt” in Polish (which I think you will agree covers most possible conversations in a foreign land).  I was also aware that Polish is basically phonetic – so, as in the old gameshow Catchphrase, you say what you see (or you would if you knew what you were seeing) – and that it has a mere 8 different vowels.  Whilst wandering around, I attempted to extend this vocabulary based on signage – especially that which, like the Rosetta Stone, had the same phrase in several languages.  I also, thanks to John Peel and Home Truths, knew that the city of Lodz (the L should have a stroke through it, but this seem to be beyond WordPress) is pronounced Woodge.  A fair number of Polish words also have a Latinate root (onion does, for example), which helps with the meaning as I can extrapolate from French or Spanish.

Armed with this very basic knowledge, at the restaurant I attempted to order my food in Polish – reading the words from the menu with my best guess as to the phonetics and with a sort of generic East European accent overlaid on this.  This strategy did prevent me from ordering some items on the menu, where I couldn’t even guess how to say the particular combination of letters, but still left a decent range of options.  I’m not sure if my Welsh ancestry helped (a language, like Polish, not afraid to use consonants), but my attempts were surprisingly successful – or the waitress was being unnecessarily polite.  My fellow diners seemed oddly impressed by my linguistic skills (truly, in the land of the blind etc) – if a little worried by my overt eccentricity.  However, we were soon all attempting to order in Polish – I like to think because I made it look so much fun.   As, indeed, it was – if I am to go further with the language I may have to practise speaking without a huge grin on my face (an expression that will not always be appropriate).  There is something wonderful about speaking a Slavic language (or a tiny bit thereof), I think part of me feels like a master spy when speaking Polish.  Southampton has quite a large Polish community, so I am wondering if I should start exercising my new found language skills on them – if nothing else, it may give them something of a shock as I doubt they often experience the locals trying to speak Polish.

So, I would recommend learning even the smallest amount about the language before you go abroad, it can be a lot of fun.  I can also confirm that many of the folk of the international electricity industry make for great company over dinner: I am now sorely tempted to visit Colombia (not something I ever expected to type).