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Sport 9: Spring 1992

♣ Elizabeth Smither — Dégustation Domestique

page 75

Elizabeth Smither

Dégustation Domestique

Fish and chips for two
2–3 fillets of fish
1–2 scoops of chips
1 lemon cut into wedges

Preheat oven to 200°F. Place fish and chips in
newspaper in centre of oven to keep warm. Plates
in warming drawer. Serve with lemon wedges.

This, from Recipes for the Busy Bride, a wedding present from Mrs Oliphant, fills me with fury. Can she have forgotten the cheese soufflés I used to make when I was seventeen and visiting? 'Amy will run up a cheese soufflé,' they used to say. Too furious to add lemon wedges. Anyway fish and chips are best consumed in a car by the sea.

Cheese soufflé
Roux sauce
3–4 eggs separated
generous amount of cheese, pref. parmesan
salt and pepper
375° 20 mins

The bare outline in my seventeen-year-old handwriting on a smeared piece of paper like a love-letter. As sure of the recipe as I was hopeful of love. The smugness of mastering the roux: that liaison of butter and flour in which the starch grains burst like the popped braces of a passionate gentleman doing the tango. Then the milk is added slowly. And if the liaison comes unstuck there is always the eggbeater.

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A different matter. No amount of egg beater or marmite can get the colour right. It turns out like the two-toned shoes of a gangster. Phoned Mother who comes within half an hour bearing a cupful. I know she doesn't like Jasper. She processes along the narrow path through the long grasses, sets the cup in my hand like a chalice and says, 'Here you are, dear,' before turning on her heel. Fancy walking 3 miles (1 ½ miles each way).


Well, it's no use tackling Pavlova, even if it is the national dessert. A national dessert that resembles a hat to wear to the races, with gloves. A meringue on tight curls and a fierce grip on the purse strings. The sort of woman who would beat a jockey for not winning. Perfect for leading the winner in though, keeping well clear of the foaming and frothing horse. And yet a touch of froth to show solidarity, to share the effort.

Instead on winter's nights I make little individual upside-down treacle puddings which we eat by firelight. Even Jasper, being an engineer, has no idea how the treacle crumbles like asphalt on the top and soaks into the sides. Like a treacle well. Elsie, Lacie and Tillie. I never think of the recipe, just throw it together. Margarine because the butter is hard in July, brown sugar, an egg or two, self-raising flour, raisins if I feel like it, generous pool of treacle at the bottom of each little dish with crimped sides. Then voilā. Out they slide with the treacle still congealing and sinking into the soft golden cake-like flesh.

Was it the same winter I took to inserting a whole pumpkin in the centre of the oven to blacken and soften ready for soup?

Pumpkin soup
Place pumpkin, leaving stalk on if desired, in centre
of oven on moderate heat until softened and charred.
Remove cautiously with oven gloves. When cool,
remove seeds. Reserve flesh. Blend with chicken
stock, seasonings, in blender. Reheat and just before serving add dollop of cream and scatter of parsley.

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Feel as proud of this as if I had invented Hallowe'en!

First dinner party and a ferocious argument among the guests about Nouvelle Cuisine. Men firmly ranged on one side. One of the guests, Angela, has learned how to do a wing design on a sauce. 'Bird passing island,' her husband calls it. Luckily the meal is almost over when this occurs.

cheesy pear (p. 19)
hot curried vegetables (p. 69)
   served with rice
         tossed green salad
         bowl of apple slices
         bowl of cucumber yoghurt
         cubes of banana in coconut
watermelon sorbet (p. 22)

I advance the argument, trying to reconcile both sides, that Nouvelle Cuisine suffers more from demolition than a meal in a railway station cafeteria. Angela bursts into tears. Robert recounts how he has been practising dry martinis and throwing most of them down the sink.

Jasper complains the coffee is awful. Hurt, I go back to making it in a saucepan (open pot method). Bring water to boil, then let it cool for a minute or two. Toss in the coffee (2 tbsps Blue Mountain moderately fine ground), stir gently and allow to steep, covered, for two to four minutes. Pour into heated mugs through a fine strainer. In the same week he mentions the dearth of flowers in the house. Add a few nasturtium leaves to a salad. Should I go further and become a fruit bottler, stripping entire trees, carefully gathering the windfalls for tarts and jellies? Decide this is in the category of Pavlova. Buy a pizza dish instead and practise making the base: 12 oz white bread flour, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp castor sugar, 2 tsp dry yeast, 1 egg, 6 fl oz warm water (approx).

from The Taste of Life by Julie Stafford. Greenhouse, 1983. Based on the concepts of Nathan Pritikin.

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Chicken fricassee

whole cooked chicken
Roux sauce
salt and pepper
pinch nutmeg (optional)
2 egg yolks
juice ½ lemon
chopped parsley
grilled bacon for garnish (optional)

Pull chicken to pieces (discard skin) and add to
sauce. Stir in egg yolks and cook for 1–2 minutes.
Add lemon, parsley, and garnish with bacon. Serve
on a bed of rice with creamy mashed potatoes.

Fond of this bland tasting dish, reminiscent of childhood and convalescence. Wouldn't like to have it too often, is Jasper's verdict. When I counter that it makes a chicken go further he brings up my lack of skill with gravy. The thick white sauce is the gravy, I shout.

Another hilarious/disastrous dinner party, depending on your sense of colour. This is Suzy's and my third attempt to cut expenses and surprise ourselves. She does the soup and dessert, I do the mains and after dinner nibbles. The men provide the wine. White wine because neither Suzy nor I like red. There is no consultation, no synchronising of recipes. So we get (from Suze) a chill whitish-green cucumber soup; from myself chicken fricassee, creamed potatoes and broad beans; a lemon sorbet (Suze) and, instead of chocolate mints, I have scooped up a bag of frosted caramels.

'It's a wonder you don't cover both of us with whipped cream and be done with it,' Andrew, Suzy's husband, groans.

'You'd be a sight more colourful, old man,' Jasper joins in.

We laugh so much we might have drunk half a dozen bottles of claret instead of two modest gerwurztraminers, a Matawhero and a Villa Maria. As she kisses me goodnight, Suze suggests an all-red dinner. Borsch, raw beef platter, raspberries, drinks with red cherries floating.

Years, cycles, now of carrot, silverbeet and potato—one potato, one page 79 silverbeet leaf (not the outer ones), one young yellowish carrot—cooked and puréed. Stewed apple, rice (2 tbsps in a piedish, lump of butter floating on the surface like a golden boat, left for hours and hours at 200° F). Ice-cream, fruit, crackers, cheese. Muffins, pizzas, shepherds' pies, poached egg on spinach nest, macaroni cheese with diced ham, nursery cum adult like two languages: one simple, the other simple enough to contain deceit. 'Give the children a sausage wrapped in bread with tomato sauce and send them to bed early. Be waiting with an intimate dinner for two with candles.' Measure the energy level of both partners. In the morning, toast, egg, cornflakes, a small destroyed encampment on the table top. Plain food, bland food, carrot, potato, green leaf with white light shining in the stem. Why not mash everything? Why not pills?

A little herb garden by the back steps, raised for easy picking, was salvation. The very names—if the herbs were never cut or dried or used—was enough. Balm, basil, chives, chervil, endive, fennel—how beautiful they sounded, like planning a holiday in Tuscany. Garlic, of course, hanging or rubbed into salt, ā la Colette, parsley, cut fine or coarse, watercress growing where the pond overflowed and nasturtiums (young) for salad. Today when we go to restaurants and a feathery frond of fennel lies alongside Sole Bonne Femme or a purple and yellow pansy beside Marquise au Chocolat** Jasper and I are unfazed thanks to the little herbarium.

* Good wife's sole
** Chocolate Marchioness

Liver Provençale
2 oz bacon 2 tbs flour
1 lb onions ½ pint stock
2 tsp salt 1 lb sheep's liver
pepper chopped parsley

Cut the bacon in small pieces and fry gently.
Remove. Slice and fry onions until they begin to
colour. Add seasoning and flour and mix well.
Add stock and stir until boiling. Return bacon
and liver cut in small pieces. Cover and simmer
for ½ hour. Serve with chopped parsley.

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Jasper has severe indigestion and disappears to the golf course. Feel Liver Provençale is the beginning of a coolness between us. Loses tournament and vomits behind a tree at the 13th hole. NB: Did think 2 tsp was excessive for salt.

Leafing despondently through Marie Claire. The children are at boarding school, Jasper has just phoned to say his business trip has been extended. Bar room noises in the background; he sounded slightly flustered. On the first page ofMarie Claire's Cuisine Ordinaireis a most extraordinary illustration. A black glossy background and an oil and herb drenched (I should be able to recognise the herb) lettuce leaf. It looks, drifting towards two partially-shown edges of lettuce leaf at the bottom of the page, like a great cloud unfolding. Or it could be an exquisite piece of lingerie in the act of floating through the air.

'French cookery, despite its very traditional base, is constantly changing. While welcoming and reflecting innovation, we do not ignore the charms of the past.' I turn quickly over The French Larderand say the names of the sauces like a litany: Crēme Fraîche, Cēpe, Béchamel, Mornay, Velouté, Soubise. Then, since I haven't eaten, I imagine myself at Maxims and order in perfect French:

Soupe de soles
Salade tiède de verdures aux foies de volaille
Tournedos aux herbes du jardin de monsieur le curé
Choux rouge à l'Alsacienne
Persil frit
Crêpes 'veuve joyeuse'*

The very sound is enough to produce happiness. Happiness and sadness, as in Velouté sauce. So soft and full does it sound one imagines a starving man in prison—a chef perhaps—dining on memories. Then, since I am dining on memories myself tonight, I open a can of baked beans, set one egg in the little poacher which gives such a perfect appearance and plug in the toaster.

* Sole soup, Warm salad of chicken livers and mixed greens, Tournedos with herbs from the curé's garden, Alsace sweet and sour red cabbage, deep fried parsley, 'Merry Widow' pancakes

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Marie Claire has a broccoli and cauliflower terrine (Terrine de chou brocoli et chou fleur), a slice of which resembles a landscape. The puréed broccoli stalks make the grass, two whole broccoli perfect little green trees with crushed pink peppercorns for fruit, crēme fraîche and puréed cauliflower make the sky and clouds. The most perfect touch is one large cauliflower floret which makes a perfect cumulus cloud.

Shopping list for a solitary weekend
4 pkts instant noodles (pork, chicken, oriental, beef)
2 croissants
1 Danish camembert
500 g muscatels
3 slices ham
1 avocado
2 tomatos
Betty Crocker cheesecake (small size)
1 can Dairy Whip (medium)

Now that term has recommenced and Jasper is in Europe I am reading more and more and discovering the links between food and literature. Not discovering them exactly, since I am still an amateur, but beginning to associate certain books, certain characters with certain dishes. I noticed it first some years ago when I was reading A House for Mr Biswas and felt an almost irresistible desire to eat rice off brass dishes. I even found myself in the kitchen boiling a large quantity of rice which had the next day to be made into a cold rice salad. I used to imagine that those writers who introduced recipes and descriptions of food were simply filling up space, in the same way two or three drafts of a letter may be shown and the reader invited to select the one posted. Thos and I had quite a good discussion when I was packing his tuckbox and he was suggesting what I might add. It seems it is important to have a good quantity to share as well as a private horde and the one conceals the other. We talked of priest holeshe is studying the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the thought of secret caches of chocolate bars seems very like a priest hole. Also I was convinced by something he said that he regards the hamper as a kind of surrogate mother. He tells me he hates Jane Austen who is on his reading list. No mention of food and not page 82 enough about sailors. I pointed out that Elizabeth Bennet does walk up an appetite in P&P but I have to agree with him that mostly exertion results in a storm of nerves. When he had gone back I suddenly thought of the cold spread in Emma.

Mrs Tancred, the new housekeeper and treasure, has left

Lamb and vegetable hotpot
Pear and walnut upside-down pudding

Last week she brought a Dundee cake.

Thos has sent a quote from John Betjeman on a postcard:

'I know what I wanted to ask you,
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Can we have trifle next hols and lots and lots of sherry?

Two new pies from Mrs Tancred:

Bacon, leek and apple pie (scrumptious!)
High-rise apple pie

I've decided to give her a raise.

Collect toll call from Benjamin. Tuck box seriously depleted. Then, obviously put up to it by his elder brother, he reads out with much guffawing:

'It's a very odd thing
As odd as can be
That whatever Master B eats
Turns into Master B.'

I gather this is from Walter de la Mare (adapted) and he regards me as responsible for girth, height, muscle tone, attractiveness to girls. Capitulate but insist he studies harder.

Over a candlelit dinner at BellissimoJasper tells me he wants a divorce. He has ordered his favourite Fettucine Alfredo* and after toying with Trenette al Peso* or Cannelloni all Laziale* I have decided on two entrees: Calamaretti Fritti* and Carciofi all Romana.* This gives a slightly refined impression, not exactly invalidism but a related kind of discernment. In a way it is a page 83 compliment to the chef. Jasper has been known, in certain moods, to send a half bottle of Barolo with his compliments. Two entrees allows room for dessert: I am already anticipating Gelato all'Anguric* or perhaps Cassata all Siciliana.*

'And to think I have always considered Italian food as the food of love,' I hiss angrily. Naturally I am not going to finish squid or artichoke now. I'd like to seize the carciofi and throw it at Jasper's face. He's just toying with his fettucine.

It seems he blames me for not recognising the pattern of his absences or a certain frisson between himself and his secretary Jill when he brought her to lunch last year (tinned soup and toasted sandwiches). I try to summon up a face and I come up with dark wavy hair, dark unplucked eyebrows and the faintest trace of a moustache. It is the moustache that undoes me. It conjures up an Italian Mamma cooking pasta for the midday meal, pasta casalinga or pasta casalinga verde, lovingly rolling and cutting and sifting the spinach. Then I see her setting the table, closing the shutters, sitting in her black apron with her head in her hands. I resolve never to eat Italian again or only in the company of children. I throw my napkin (red with white checks, naturally) into the Calamaretti Fritti and stalk out.

Now comes a period, before the settlement is drawn up, when the boys with their tuckboxes eat better than I do. Baked beans on toast and poached egg left to frill in the water. I have returned to baby foods. Stewed apple. A canister of Dairy Whip. Perhaps there should have been one final feast culminating in a great Pyramide de glaces, de sorbets et de fruits:** three litres of mixed ice-creams and sorbets: vanilla, mango, lime, melon, mint, apricot. A great pyramid to crash down, a gastronomique eminence that would melt away like a candle.

'Don't eat too many almonds,' Colette wrote. 'They add weight to the breasts.' I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if I have eaten too many almonds. Decidedly I am heavier. I have always been pear-shaped.

The boys have been assured we shall attend cricket matches and end of term concerts and graduation as we always have. Jasper will simply be

* Fettucine Alfred, Fettucine with Pesto sauce, Cannelloni with beef, bacon and mushroom stuffing, Fried small squid, Globe artichokes Roman style, Watermelon ice cream, Sicilian cassata

** Ice-cream, sorbet and fruit pyramid

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spending more time in the city. Eventually I shall find something smaller but there is no hurry. Jasper will find something larger than his one room flat we used to use for staying overnight for theatres and concerts. Where the fridge was stocked with Veuve Cliquot and pâté. Once it held a generous helping of Stilton brought home in a napkin.

French toast II
2 slices day-old whole wheat or enriched white bread
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons skim milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
½ tablespoon oil

In a mixing bowl combine the egg whites, milk,
vanilla and cinnamon. Beat lightly. Heat a griddle
or heavy frying pan until hot and grease it well
with oil. Dip bread slices in the egg white mixture
and fry on both sides until golden brown and
crisp. Serve with jelly.

Yield: 2 servings
Approx. Cal/Serv.: 115

Ate one serving for breakfast; one, cold, for supper. Approx. Total Cals.: 300.

Why, I wonder, did we never eat Looed beef (p. 312),* Pappardelle with telephone wires (p. 371), Chinese sausage, dried duck, and roast pork sand pot (p. 340) or Headcheese salad (p. 332)? I'm glad we missed Live drunken shrimp (p. 169)! 'I hesitate to tell you about this dish, but I have decided I can chance it with you. By this time we understand one another and you know that I will try anything, any food anywhere at any time, at least once . . . A large glass casserole is brought to your table with quite a bit of Chinese rice wine in the bottom of the dish . . . the live shrimps are dumped into the

* Smith, Jeff, The Frugal Gourmet cooks three ancient cuisines: China, Greece and Rome. N.Y., Morrow, 1989.

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heavy the wine intoxicates them, they begin jumping about...banging themselves on the lid. They are drunk! They are then removed from the wine bath and dropped into rapidly boiling Chinese Chicken Soup Stock. They die instantly of course . . . you can taste the wine they imbibed. A light dipping sauce accompanies this very Hong Kong dish.'

I am walking by the sea eating fish and chips from a newspaper. The newspaper is as warm as a muff or a hot brick. I insert my fingers, greasy and salted as the sea is, and pull out a plump golden chip and then break offfor the fish is unbearably hot, as the shrimps were before they died (I don't believe, and never will, that what dies instantly feels nothing)just a corner of fish. The fish is blue cod for which there is a small extra charge. As my hand goes deeper into the bag it feels like fire and at the same time is oddly comforting, a bandage under which healing and all that entails is taking place. I think of the absurd Recipes for the Busy Bride and when the bag is empty I go and dip my fingers in the sea.