The other day, I bought a bunch of candy beetroots from my local market. I’ve never seen them there before, and because they are one of the prettiest ingredients you can buy, I snapped them up eagerly. ‘Have you tried these candy beetroot things?’ the lady behind the stall asked me. She was making polite conversation, but probably got more than she bargained for. Instead of a casual ‘yes, they’re great’, I proceeded not only to tell her all the best recipes for candy beetroot, but also the correct methods of cooking it so as to preserve its unique coloration (steaming in foil), the best utensils for the job (mandoline), and its Italian name (chioggia).Read More
Have you ever tried whitecurrants? I bet you haven't.
Even I, until today, had never tried whitecurrants, and I've tried a lot of weird and obscure fruits and vegetables. I bet you go your entire life without ever seeing whitecurrants in the supermarket or market; in fact, you may never see them in the flesh at all, unless you're lucky enough to spend a lovely couple of hours at a pick your own farm that has them (and even then, space is usually devoted to the more popular red and black varieties). Or, of course, unless you're lucky enough to have a PhD supervisor who frequently bestows her home-grown fruit and veg on you.
She referred to them as 'a challenge', and it's not hard to see why. You can't exactly pick up a cookbook and find a selection of recipes for whitecurrants. The only recipes I've ever seen are in a tiny chapter devoted to the fruit in Nigel Slater's Tender Part II. Even there, he remarks upon the sourness of the currants and therefore their difficulty as happy bedfellows with other ingredients. There is, though, a luscious-looking whitecurrant tart that I have my eye on, with a ginger biscuit crust and a fromage frais and cheese filling.
We don't really seem to 'get' currants in the UK. You can sometimes find them at markets and supermarkets in summer, but only for a very brief period of time, and no one really seems to know what to do with them. They do present a problem, being fiddly to remove from their stalks and, to some tastes, unpleasantly sour. The trick, I find, is to couple them with sweeter fruits: redcurrants are lovely with peaches, for example, or strawberries, and blackcurrants work well with apricots, pears and apples. If you're looking for a reliable supply of these treasures, pick your own farms are probably your best bet, or growing your own (or, as I did, accidentally but conveniently choosing as your supervisor someone who grows their own).
Whitecurrants, though, are the most elusive of the lot. While redcurrants can be found, fairly reliably, in the summer, and blackcurrants do usually make an appearance in some supermarkets, whitecurrants are just not cool in the world of currants, apparently. Maybe it's their lack of bright colour, unlikely to catch the capricious eye of the passing supermarket shopper. Maybe it's their intense sourness, an acquired taste. Maybe it's a vicious circle: the less we see these currants, the less we know what to do with them, therefore the less likely we are to buy them.
So why bother with these little globes of sourness? Because, as you can see, they are totally gorgeous to look at. Up close, they have an eerie translucency to them; you can just make out the seeds inside, while the skins have a pearlescent sheen. They are not really white, but myriad shades of cream, jade, beige, almost giving off a muted glow as they sit in a bowl, waiting to be made use of. They really do look like a string of culinary pearls, begging to adorn your food in the way you might use pomegranate seeds or dried cherries. And food, in my opinion, should be adorned. Even if it's just a scattering of bright herbs, it can make all the difference.
Given their sourness, whitecurrants need to be paired with something very sweet - my thoughts initially turned to cheesecake and meringue. However, I then considered their potential in savoury recipes. Sour ingredients - those that spring to mind are gooseberries and rhubarb - are often combined with fatty meat or oily fish, their astringency used to balance the richness of the protein. Always one to go for oily fish over pretty much any form of meat, I just had to choose the best oily fish of all: mackerel.
The sour nip of a whitecurrant works perfectly with the moist, rich, crispy-edged flesh of a seared mackerel. The combination is unusual and refreshing, surprising with every mouthful. To make the mackerel even more flavoursome against the currants, I coated the fillets in a mixture of lemon salt (I'd really recommend this if you don't have any; it's just salt mixed with dried and ground lemon peel, and you can get it from JustIngredients online) and smoked paprika. It's an incredibly flavoursome, moreish combination: smoky and salty with an addictive tang from lemon. I think I might always cook mackerel in this way now; it works with so many accompaniments, and it really brings out the intense character of the fish.
To go alongside, a salad of whitecurrants and lentils. This is basically taken from Nigel Slater's Tender, where he suggests serving it with the leftovers of a roast. It works so well with my mackerel idea, though, that I don't think you could find a better combination. The lentils are nutty and earthy, a pleasant canvas for the other dancing flavours, while the burst of sour juice from a currant peppers each mouthful. There is freshness and zip from masses of shredded parsley and mint, and finally that gorgeous, succulent, crispy-skinned spiced mackerel.
If you can't get whitecurrants, you could make this with redcurrants, or pomegranate seeds, or even dried sour cherries or raisins at a push. If you don't like or have mackerel, use trout or salmon, or go the meat route - smoked chicken, sausages, roast pork, lamb and game will all work well. If you're vegetarian, try it with some crumbled goat's cheese and toasted walnuts or pecans. Either way, you'll be rewarded with a simple but beautiful plate of food, packed with nourishing and delicious vibrant flavours.
And, of course, garnished with a string of pearls.
A big thank you to Trev for the gift of whitecurrants - I hope you approve of what I did with them!
Smoky spiced mackerel with whitecurrant and lentil salad (serves 4):
- 400g puy lentils
- Sea salt
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- A small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- A small bunch of mint, finely chopped
- 200g whitecurrants (or redcurrants if you can't find whitecurrants), stalks removed
- 4 mackerel, filleted (to get 8 fillets)
- 3 tsp lemon salt
- 3 tsp smoked paprika
- Olive oil, for cooking
Cook the lentils in plenty of boiling, salted water for about 15 minutes until tender but still nutty. Drain and return to the pan. Mix the olive oil and vinegar with a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, then stir into the lentils while still warm, along with the herbs. Allow to cool a little, then gently stir in the whitecurrants. Check the seasoning - lentils need quite a lot of salt to make them sing.
For the mackerel, dry the fillets on kitchen towel. Mix together the lemon salt, paprika and some black pepper, then spread over the fillets. Heat a glug of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, then sear the mackerel on both sides over a high heat for about 2 minutes each side (you may need to do this in batches if your pan isn't big enough). Serve on top of the lentil salad, garnished with a little extra parsley.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranatesare everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
- 2 mackerel, filleted
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- A generous pinch of chilli flakes
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
- 1 small bulb fennel
- 2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.
The sky was what is called a mackerel sky - rows and rows of faint down-plumes of cloud, just tinted with the midsummer sunset ~ H.G. Wells
Sometimes, I get this wonderful feeling having just finished a meal. It's not just the sensation of being pleasantly full where, twenty minutes ago, I was starving. It's more than that. It's the feeling of nourishment. Feeling not just as though any old thing has come along and filled up the growling gap in my stomach, but something fresh, vibrant, nutritious. I can almost feel the vitamins and minerals seeping into my bloodstream. Although I cook pretty healthy food most of the time, I don't get this feeling as commonly as perhaps I would like. When I do, though, it is a lovely thing.
When I think back to the number of times I've felt well and truly nourished after a meal, there seems to be a common denominator. Mackerel.
It is fairly widely acknowledged that mackerel, like all oily fish, is indeed very good for you. But so, apparently, are parsnips and yoghurt, and I hate them. No, there is something more to my love for mackerel than simply knowing of its nutritional benefits.
Perhaps it's the gorgeous texture; dense, hugely flavoursome and almost meaty, it provides instantly satisfying bulk to any salad. Maybe it's the deep, rich flavour, almost like bacon in its satisfying saltiness. I love mackerel in all its guises: the smoked fillets have an incredible depth of flavour that makes them ideal for lifting all sorts of salads, whereas one of my all-time favourite simple meals is a whole, glistening mackerel, gutted and grilled and served on the bone where its juicy, moist flesh flakes effortlessly away. There's something almost primal about tucking into a whole fish with its head still on, simply grilled, its skin crispy and its flesh moist within. It is one of the simplest of foodstuffs, yet it is nourishing and deeply satisfying.
The intense richness of mackerel, particularly smoked mackerel, means that you need something sweet or sharp to go with it. In the summer I make a salad of wild rice, chopped mango, smoked mackerel and oodles of lime juice, chopped mint, basil and coriander. It being January, however, fresh mangoes aren't really at their prime, and it would feel slightly wrong, somehow, to try and pretend it's summer when I am wearing my dressing gown around the house over my clothing. This is my winter version of a healthy and vibrant mackerel salad.
When I made my first post-Christmas trip to the market a couple of days ago, I was thrilled to discover that blood oranges are in season. These are one of my all-time favourite fruits, both for their gorgeous appearance and for their tart sweetness, so much more exciting and exotic than a normal orange. Last winter I made a lot of blood orange salads to serve with whole grilled mackerel, and I couldn't resist gathering up a load of these lovely fruits to try another variation.
I've also read a lot about the combination of beetroot and orange; I normally don't like beetroot, finding it too sweet, but pairing it with a sharp orange like a blood orange tones down a lot of its natural sugars and makes it taste earthy and delicious. Ditto the carrots, which I actually prefer raw to cooked. However, roasting them in wedges at a high temperature with olive oil turns them wonderfully burnished and delicious, a far cry from that horrible sickly pre-packaged beetroot you can buy.
This salad is simple. Roast wedges of beetroot and carrot until golden and caramelised. Toss with a dressing made from blood orange zest, a little olive and sesame oil and some seasoning. Add blood orange segments, coriander, wilted beetroot leaves, and finally some peppered smoked mackerel. I chose the peppered fillets rather than the plain ones because I thought the heat of them would go well with the sweet root vegetables.
This is a substantial salad, perfect for serving as a main course. It's also ideal for this time of year, when people are trying to cut back on carbohydrates and the like - you don't need anything to go with it. It's just nutritious vegetables and fruit, and protein-rich mackerel. Just looking at it is enough to make you feel you've achieved that new year's resolution to eat more healthily: you can't argue with a plate bursting with crimson, marigold and deep greens.
If you're not a fan of mackerel, you could use trout or sardines. Or, for a non-aquatic version, try thin slices of roast lamb or beef, or crumbled feta/goat's cheese, or grilled halloumi. The possibilities are almost endless, but I'd urge you to try the combination of beetroot, carrot and orange. It may sound odd, but it works wonderfully.
I really love this salad; it feels indulgent, somehow, despite being healthy - I think it's the richness of the mackerel, as well as the refreshing vibrant flavours in there from the orange and coriander. I can guarantee that, were you to eat this for dinner, you would come away feeling well and truly nourished.
Beetroot, blood orange and carrot salad with peppered mackerel (serves 2 hungry people):
- 4 small beetroot, leaves attached
- 4 large carrots
- A couple of handfuls of baby spinach (if not using the beet leaves)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 blood oranges
- A large bunch of fresh coriander
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 150g peppered mackerel fillets
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cut the beetroot into thin wedges, and cut the carrots into thick batons. Boil the carrots for about 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and tip into a roasting dish. Boil the beetroot in the water for 5 minutes too, then add it to the carrots. (Boiling them separately stops you ending up with purple carrots).
Toss the beetroot and carrot with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast for about 40 minutes until soft and caramelised.
Meanwhile, zest the oranges into a large bowl. Remove the skin using a sharp knife, then cut the oranges into segments and add these to the bowl. Finely chop the coriander and add this too, along with the sesame oil and some seasoning. Stir well.
Finely chop the beetroot leaves and stalks, then place in a hot pan with a little water and cover with a lid, allowing them to steam until tender. If using baby spinach instead, you can either wilt it in a hot pan or add it raw to the salad.
When the vegetables are cooked, allow them to cool for a few minutes before adding to the orange dressing. Add the spinach/beetroot leaves, and toss everything together. Pile onto plates, and top with the mackerel fillets.
This dish will always hold a special place in my heart. Not because mackerel is my favourite fish and I'm rather fond of gooseberries, though this is true, but because it was the last dish I ever cooked in my Oxford kitchen.
Those who ever spent time with me in said kitchen will know that it was the subject of numerous rants and tirades. There was the perpetual problem of people using my utensils and not washing them up. There was the horrible fridge that every now and then decided to leak stagnant water. There was the housemate who left the freezer open overnight and lost me my hoard of prized ingredients. There was the cleaner who threw out my silicon baking parchment. There was the issue of having only two square feet of worktop space in the entire kitchen. There was the inexplicable locked filing cabinet in the corner taking up potential worktop space.
Yet despite all that, I became attached to that kitchen. Unfortunately, as so often in life, I didn't realise quite how much until I had to leave.
When I think back, I don't remember the open freezer or the stagnant fridge. Well, except I obviously do, as I mentioned them above. But what stands out in my mind far more than the minor issues are all the times I spent huddled around the horrible grey plastic table with all of my friends. Friends who often had to sit on upturned bins because of the lack of chairs. Friends who would hold washing up contests once dinner was over, which invariably made the washing up take three times as long but were worth it for the sheer amusement value. Friends who would usually bring far too much wine. Friends who, when the fridge did have one of its tantrums, helped me bail out the pools of stagnant water in the bottom using a mug. Friends who would always act as if me cooking for them was some kind of immense sacrifice, as if I saw myself as some kind of kitchen martyr, when really I felt like they were doing me a favour by allowing me to use them as guinea pigs for my culinary experiments.
Friends who I miss more than I can possibly say right now.
I don't usually go in for sentimental blog posts. In fact, they're one of my pet hates - food blogs should be about food. But right now the alternative to writing one is sitting on my bedroom floor nursing a long-cold cup of tea that I've been too busy sobbing to finish, while listening to Adele on repeat, curled up in a foetal position hugging a cushion.
I always knew it was going to be difficult, finally moving out after four years at university in Oxford. I've come home for the holidays, but I've always known I'd be going back for another term or another year. This time, I was leaving for good. Without funding it would be ridiculous to stay on for a PhD. I'd been escaping those terrifying thoughts about my future by just doing another degree, and the prospect of them all catching up with me was not one I relished. I lingered in Oxford for as long as I could after handing in my dissertation, saying multiple goodbyes as all my friends gradually dwindled away and there was no one left to cook for. I knew then that it was finally time to leave, and had a truly awful day of packing up the entire material contents of my life into bin bags and boxes, punctuated with frequent bouts of weeping at mundane objects and a bewilderment at how I'd managed to accumulate so much stuff.
For the last few weeks it's been nice to have a bit of a break, although I feel like I haven't actually had a break at all, instead running manically around London trying in vain to kick-start my career as a food writer, or teaching creative writing to GCSE and A-level students. I've been so busy that I haven't really had time to think about the lack of Oxford in my life, instead occupying myself with finally unpacking the last of my belongings and finding a place for them in my (much smaller) bedroom in Cambridge.
So I don't know why I suddenly feel completely engulfed by a crushing sense of loneliness.
I miss Oxford. Horribly. Not so much the beautiful surroundings, as I'm fairly spoilt by those too here in Cambridge. I miss all the good restaurants and the markets - you just can't compare Cambridge's humble offerings; its fishmonger is more expensive and it only has one butcher instead of four. I miss the iconic Radcliffe Camera and the musty Lower Reading Room of the Bodleian Library that always smelled inexplicably of cumin. I miss walking in the beautiful Christ Church meadows in all weathers, my favourite time being spring when the snowdrops start to appear followed closely by tiny little ducklings. I miss donning my sweeping black gown and striding across the streets for dinner, sleeves billowing in the wind making me feel like batwoman. I miss sitting on the stone table at Merton surveying the acres of meadow and garden surrounding me and feeling a pleasant sense of detached contentment. I miss my short-cut through the famous Turf Tavern, with its chalkboard sign appearing during exam season reading "FINALISTS: PLEASE REMOVE ALL GLITTER, FLOUR ETC. BEFORE ENTERING". I even miss the rotten eggs and mouldering sardines stuck between the cobbles on Magpie Lane that meant trashing time was in full swing, and I never thought I'd hear myself say that.
I miss my lovely room which, again, I used to complain about all the time (no natural light right underneath noisy housemate on ground floor so people can break in ethernet socket in the wrong place tiny windows grrrrr) but I secretly loved and cherished, having made it my own with the numerous accoutrements I brought back from the Middle East; a place where I felt truly at home and content, a place which was all mine and which I loved sharing with everyone I knew, a place with its own bathroom and power shower that I don't think I ever fully appreciated, seeing as I took most of my showers at the swimming pool or gym, but which many people were envious of (en suites are rare enough, but an en suite with a shower instead of a bath is like the Holy Grail of student accommodation).
But more than anything, I miss having all my friends no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I miss being able to send round endless Facebook messages simply entitled "Dinner?" to a handful of people who I'd then spend a manic afternoon and evening cooking for. I miss going for tea and scones at the Rose with the girls from my Dickens course. I miss dinner and Disney evenings with some of my Navy friends. I miss garden parties on the lawns at Merton with the friends I've known since my very first few weeks in Oxford, most of whom fled abroad during their third years and left me initially rather desolate. I miss receiving texts simply saying "Pub?" and five minutes later being surrounded by my friends and wine. I miss formal hall in college, gossiping over bowls of generic "Merton soup" and slightly shrivelled-looking dinners. I miss the company of all my friends in the University Royal Naval Unit; the tedious-but-fun drill nights, the stupidly cheap bar, challenging but amusing weekends on HMS Tracker, the raucous and wine-filled mess dinners, the countless gatherings over food at my house, usually culminating in cups of tea on the floor of my room (we know how to party). I miss all the new friends I've made since I started at Oxford, and the old friends who I went to school with and who also ended up at Oxford.
Because this is me, a lot of these memories are articulated through food. I remember the disastrous evening where I cooked pasta with cheese followed by cheesecake to a friend who only afterwards admitted she didn't like cheese. I remember the gorgeous, enormous joint of beef topside that I had such high hopes for and that my mad oven frazzled to a well-done crisp, leaving me almost in tears, but which all my friends reassured me was delicious and thereby prevented an outbreak of chef-meltdown. I remember the homemade Middle Eastern cheese that a friend described as "rotted bovine lactation". I remember the confit garlic bread that I had to smack people's hands away from until the accompanying main course was ready (I knew I shouldn't have put it on the table). I remember my attempts to make a chocolate sauce by adding hot water to chocolate, and the resulting mess that a friend of mine somehow managed to salvage by stirring it continuously until it turned into crunchy nuggets of sugary goodness that then adorned some delicious chocolate and pear pancakes.
I remember the heart-shaped pavlova that was shared with friends in an attempt to cheer myself up during my boyfriend's absence on Valentine's Day. The chai tea ice cream that no one could guess the flavour of. The ragu of hare that boiled over while I was in the gym leaving a bloody mess all over my induction hob and a highly stressed cook. The trip to Moya where a friend of mine ordered a fishcake starter instead of a dessert, much to our (and the waitress's) amusement. My twenty-second birthday, where a friend of mine proudly presented me with a whole tray of chocolate brownie, with candles on and everything. The vat of beef goulash I made to feed many hungry Navy mouths and which went down a treat compared to the usual drill night fare of flaccid burgers and anaemic oven chips. The testing and often hilarious time spent catering for said Navy mouths for two weeks on HMS Tracker as we broke down in various locations along the coast from Portugal to Dartmouth (carbonara a highlight, rather rubbery pear and chocolate pudding a low point). The numerous texts inviting friends over for yet another freshly-baked banana cake because I'd carelessly let the bananas in my fruit bowl turn black. The phase where anyone invited for dinner would get nothing but variations on lamb tagine and mounds of couscous. The time my friend was sick after her starter at Christ Church formal hall, which pretty much summed up the quality of the food there, and - conversely - the amazing dinners I've had at many other colleges courtesy of my friends there.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have made so many wonderful friends during my time at university. I'm finding it very hard, if I'm honest, being back here in Cambridge, without the ability to summon them all to my house for dinner at the click of a mouse. Getting everyone together in one place is proving tricky, and I feel a bit like I'm wasting away, pining into nothingness without the constant flow of social interaction that used to characterise my time in Oxford. I worry that I will lose touch with people that I don't want to lose touch with, that everyone will go their separate ways and it will be years before we all meet up again, if ever. I guess this is only natural, this is how everyone feels after leaving university, that horrible sense of being completely lost and adrift on the sea of "adult life", and the hideous loneliness that invariably accompanies it. But it doesn't make it any easier.
As always, when something is amiss in my life, I try to distract myself with cooking. It's just not quite as rewarding without such great people to share it with. This mackerel recipe is a pretty good one to represent everything that's going on in my head right now. Its deliciousness lies in the sauce, a beautiful harmony of the bitter and the sweet. I imagine it is exactly what nostalgia would taste like.
Thank you to all of my wonderful, wonderful friends. I miss you more than even the many words of this unusually sentimental blog post can say.
Mackerel with gooseberries (serves 2):
- Two mackerel, filleted
- 250g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 2 tsp creamed horseradish
- Caster sugar
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
First, make the gooseberry sauce. Place the gooseberries in a pan with a splash of water and heat until the skins burst and they start to break down. Bubble away until you have a fairly thick sauce (but add a little more water if it dries out), then season and stir in the horseradish and some caster sugar, a teaspoon at a time - keep tasting until you have a sauce that is still fairly tart but not unpleasantly so.
Slash the mackerel fillets three or four times on the skin side and season well with salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the fillets, skin side first, for a couple of minutes on each side until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily and the skin is nicely crispy.
Serve with the gooseberry sauce and some new potatoes or wild rice.