A bit of holiday cooking (and reading)

Roasted perch and tomatoes served with bread

I do like to read.

So when the opportunity came up to visit my parents, brother, sister, brother in law and niece and nephew at a nice villa in the South of France (Languedoc) the other week I jumped at the chance.
The idea was that while not contributing to the holiday per se, I would cook for everyone, thus saving money overall on the inevitable meals out and takeaways which would have otherwise drained the financial resources.

The problem with reading for me is that, doing what I do, there are really no set hours for work and relaxation as such.
This last year and a half or so, I seem to have been touring rather a lot (Us3, Jim Mullen, Marlena Shaw, Mica Paris, Boy George – each different band presents a different dynamic as to convenient reading opportunities) and although, as you can imagine, there is sometimes a lot of sitting around, I tend not to get through too many books on the road, the main inhibiting factors being (not necessarily in this order):

  • Alcohol – although a couple of drinks sometimes enhance my enjoyment of a book, one too many and I can’t remember what I’ve read when sobered up.
  • Travel –  I can’t read in a car or a minibus, and although it is possible to read on the tourbus, there’s too often distracting activity like DVD watching, animated conversation or the aforementioned  alcohol in commencement at any one time.
  • Noise – A lot of sitting around can occur in soundchecks, but have you ever tried to read with a bass drum or tom tom being played repetitively at high volume through a large PA for the purposes of equalization?
  • Cabin fever – I tend to find it difficult to read for prolonged periods when confined to a small space like a hotel room.
  • Unsettlement – At airports waiting for the gate number to appear, one is always looking up at the screen in the waiting lounge, thus providing an unwelcome break in concentration.
  • Unsocial flight times – A fair amount of flights that we take are often very early in the morning, so while reading on the plane is an option, I’m more likely to want to sleep if possible.

And when at home I equate reading with not doing something constructive (not quite true I know), so I’m much more likely to get to work in the studio or at the piano.
I can get really into reading first thing in the morning (a couple of years ago I got through quite a few Iris Murdoch books just this way), but it does tend blunt my concentration for a couple of hours afterwards, as well as taking up half the day so I rarely do this anymore.

SO when the opportunity came up to go on the holiday, the first thing I did was get the books I wanted to read. Last year I did the same thing, but took the wrong book (I took Crime and Punishment – and while I enjoyed reading the book as a whole, I remember being aware that it didn’t necessarily equate to my idea of relaxing by the pool with a beer)

I took 3 books with me this time:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird – we read this at school I’m sure, but like a lot of things at school, I didn’t invest much attention or effort to it. Reading it again was a much more enjoyable experience.
  • The Life of Pi – couldn’t put this down. Very imaginative, humorous, informative, entertaining, and also lots of references to South Indian food – which is always a good thing.
  • The Poisonwood Bible – Am halfway through this at the moment. Thoroughly engrossing characterizations and fascinating historical perspective.

I also did a lot of cooking. The ingredients and produce available at even the most humble French supermarkets always has me fascinated and brimming with ideas (however, since most of the people I was cooking for were not nearly as wildly liberal or adventurous in taste as myself, I was unable to realize many of these ideas).

But I endeavored to make some nice grub anyhow.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sausage and cheese frittata

When I arrived on the Sunday, we discovered all the supermarkets were closed, so I had to rustle something up from what was in the villa already, and what we could acquire from a local service station shop. There was a box of 6 eggs in the villa along with some herbs, and olive oil, and not much else. The service station sold packs of luncheon meat style sausage, and some nice looking Cantal Juene cheese, which is a young cow’s milk cheese, firm in texture and fruity in flavour. I sliced and fried the sausage, drained the fat from the pan, put the sausage meat in once again and added the beaten eggs with some herbs and black pepper. My intention was to then add the grated cheese on top and brown under the grill to cook the top of the eggs and cheese. But… we then discovered that the grill would only operate with the oven door closed, and I didn’t want to commit the frying pan to this unrelenting heat, so I heated up the oven, then opened it and let the top of the frittata firm up in the residual heat. Not ideal, but did the job OK…. the result being a slightly guey cheese underside to the omelette, which was not at all unpleasant, though a bit messy to cut up…

The next day, we got to the supermarket and stocked up on supplies.

Chicken casserole cooked in white wine with green peppers, olives and bay

The meal that night was a simple but very tasty rustic chicken casserole cooked in white wine and stock, with sliced green peppers, olives, onions, garlic, bay and herbs. It was served with mash potatoes and steamed green beans:

Chicken casserole served with mash and beans

…and accompanied by bread with oil and balsemic vinegar (a constant companion to food that week):

Bread and oil with balsemic

The next morning I made another frittata, this time with sausage and sliced courgettes.
I put the courgettes on the bottom of the pan and the sausages on top, so it appeared like this in the pan:

Sausage and courgette frittata in the pan...

…and took on this lovely appearance when upended onto a plate:

Sausage and courgette frittata

Now before I go any further, I must admit that I did totally steal the idea for an upended courgette frittata from the wonderful blog “Lou Loves Food”  … which is packed with amazing photos and absorbing writing, and I can highly recommend it…. so thanks Lou.. 😉

That evening I decided on making some Indian food ….. yes I’m aware that may not be the most obvious option in the South of France, but my mind was made up as soon as I saw the beautiful mutton on offer in the supermarket. Mutton is a meat less than commonly available in the UK, and it rewards slow patient cooking with the most succulent and flavoursome dishes.

I bought some chopped shoulder (on the bone) pieces to make a curry with tomato and aubergine, and some ribs to make what is known as a “Bone Pepperwater”. This is a meat variation on the standard pepperwater (rasam) which is a soup consistency dish made with tomatoes, lemon, tamarind and spices.

The only problem with all this is that I was somewhat limited in the choice of spices available in the supermarket. I managed to get fresh garlic and ginger, and eventually found a premixed curry powder (not something I normally like to use) which seemed to have a good balance of coriander, cumin, tumeric, mustard and fenugreek in it.

The aubergine in the curry was cooked separately with onions, ginger and garlic (a trick I recently picked up off my mother) and added during the last 1/2 hour, which helps to preserve not only it’s texture, but flavour as well. The curry itself simmered slowly for 5 hours.

Mutton curry with aubergine and tomatoes

The bone pepperwater was made with some fresh vegetables (carrots and courgetttes), plenty of lemon and also some paprika, which I found in the villa. The mutton ribs do add the most amazing stocky earthy flavour to this dish, it must be said.

Mutton "Bone Pepperwater"

After the curry, I thought it would be a good idea to cook fish the next day both from a time and simplicity point of view.
The fish counter at the “Intermarche” was of course vastly superior to my local supermarket.
I eventually settled for some lovely fresh perch fillets, which I roasted on a bed of cherry tomatoes with balsamic  vinegar, bay and salt.
I gave the tomatoes a start of about 15-20 mins in an 180degC oven, then simply popped the perch fillets on top, cooked for a further 10 mins and it was done:

Perch fillets roasted on a bed of cherry tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and bay..

There was not much need to serve this with anything else but that perennial king of juice mopper-uppers: fresh french bread:

Roasted perch and tomatoes served with bread

The next day was to be barbecue day. However, here I failed in my duty as a blogger and recorder of events since due to the distractions of reading, swimming, table tennis and drinking, I didn’t start the fire in time and so even though I made lots of food, the only picture I managed to take before it went dark was of some balsamic chilli prawns. (I have an iPhone so am unfortunately at the mercy of the light).
Just for the record though, I did also make salmon and courgette kebabs, aubergine and red pepper kebabs, 2 types of sausages and chicken in a Mexican marinade.

Prawns in a balsamic and chilli marinade

One advantage of being in the centre of wine producing country was that there was an abundance of vineyards with completely quaffable red wine on tap at an amazing price. (€1-€1.50 a litre).
Had I the time or opportunity I would have loved to avail myself of some of the delicious looking lambs hearts in the supermarket and braise them in red wine for hours until tender… This meal unfortunately would not have been very popular with the others:

Red wine on tap.....

The final day of cooking was also the least intensive since there was a lot of packing, cleaning of the villa etc to be done before vacating, I opted to cook a simple sausage pasta with a tomato and red wine sauce. Despite appearing fairly ordinary, it was most enjoyable, due to the high quality of the sausagemeat:

Sausage and tomato pasta.....

All in all an enjoyable chance to read, cook, swim and relax…… now, back to the piano I think….

Barbecued chicken breasts in a rosemary and garlic marinade…

Barbecued chicken breasts in a rosemary and garlic marinade, served with potato salad and steamed veg tossed in sage butter

Finally a chance to get the barbecue out. It was pretty much nice and cloudless all day, but predictably enough, when I actually pulled the contraption out of the shed a few clouds started to hover over head. However, after a few minutes of staring menacingly into the sky, I managed to persuade them to disperse (I’m not claiming credit for this, it’s merely the way I choose to remember it….)

Luckily though since I’d done all the preparation beforehand, I was able to concentrate all my attention into the tasks of cloud dispersal, and more importantly, firelighting –  and I definitely needed to concentrate on the latter.
I’m no Ray Mears, in fact any prolonged period in the wild would probably see me losing a substantial amount of weight before getting a serviceable fire going, even armed with a box of matches and a pile of tinder.

Anyhow, the first thing I did this afternoon was pop down to the butchers and get a couple of chicken breasts.
I’d decided to butterfly them so as to facilitate more even cooking on the barby, and to marinade them in something non acidic, since anytime I’ve used lemon juice, wine or vinegar for a marinade, it’s tended to dry the meat out more than anything….

So I decided to use rosemary (which we have an abundance of in the garden) and garlic.

Here’s what I did:

The chicken breasts needed to be butterflied. Here they are before:

Unbutterflied chicken breasts

To butterfly them, insert a sharp knife into the thick end, and cut lengthways stopping about 1cm from the edge. Then open them like a book. I decided to also bash them with a tenderizing hammer to even them out more and assure they took on as much marinade as possible.
Here they are butterflied but not bashed yet (hammer at the ready though)…

Butterflied but before bashing

And after being given a jolly good bashing:

After being bashed

Next it was time to prepare the marinade. The plan was to use lots of fresh rosemary and juicy chunky garlic:

Rosemary and garlic

I removed the stalks from the rosemary, and skinned and bashed (with the side of the knife this time) a few cloves of garlic.
Then chopped it all up roughly:

Garlic and rosemary chopped up roughly

Next I placed all the garlic and rosemary into my pestle and mortar, ready to apply some elbow grease:

Put the rosemary into pestle and mortar and apply elbow grease

Apply some more elbow grease….

Apply more elbow grease

Then add a generous few glugs of olive oil into the marinade and apply yet more elbow grease…

Add a generous few glugs of olive oil into the marinade and apply yet more elbow grease...

When the rosemary and garlic has been well ground into the olive oil, apply the marinade generously over both sided of the chicken breasts:

Apply the marinade to the chicken breasts

I then wrapped the breasts up in clingfilm and kept refrigerated for about 4 hours (longer is better if you can):

Wrap chicken breasts in clingfilm and refrigerate

So the chicken breasts were marinading in the fridge.

I then prepared my veg for steaming (just chopped up courgette and broccoli) and made some sage butter (by mashing chopped fresh sage into softened butter) in which to toss the veg before serving, and also prepared some potato salad by just boiling up some Jersey Royals, letting them cool and then mixing them up with some mayonnaise (Hellman’s I’m afraid not home made) and some fresh chopped chives.

Finally it was time to tackle the firelighting task.

As usual, I did my accustomed faffing around with newspaper, matches and firelighters unsuccessfully for about 1 and 1/2 hours before I managed to remember the technique of lighting a successful fire (ie. starting with smaller charcoals, arranging them tactically and tending it constantly), rather than my initial effort of just leaving it to get going of its own accord while I sipped beer. (In my experience thats a romanticized image of a barbecue anyhow…..or maybe I just lack the necessary alpha male skills required… who knows? but I suspect the latter somehow..).

Anyway, finally the barbecue was ready and I unwrapped the chicken, sprinkled each side with salt and placed over the coals.

Place the chicken breasts over the coals (note the rosemary bush in the background)

I kept the chicken on the barby for about 10 mins, turning frequently. I even added a few twigs of rosemary onto the fire so as to add some woody herby smoke flavour…

Cook the chicken for about 10 mins, turning frequently (don't get to close with that iphone camera though..)

Finally, when the chicken was cooked, I squeezed a generous amount of  fresh lemon juice  over both sides, and served, with the potato salad and the veg which had been steamed and tossed briefly in the sage butter…

Serve out with potato salad, and veg tossed in sage butter...