If only Nikki could see me now, I thought. Back in June at a bit of a loose end, I enrolled on ‘A Taste of Food Writing’ course at Greenwich Community College. I’d always fancied trying to write about food so when I read about the course in ‘The Guide’ I thought “why not?”
There were about a dozen of us taking part, and I was probably the least experienced cook in the class. Nikki Spencer was our inspirational tutor and mentor and during the first class, to break the ice, she asked us to talk about ourselves, what we did, what cookery books we had, how many, and which dishes we liked cooking, which restaurants we’d visited, and so on. Rather shamefaced I said I didn’t cook, but I read cookery books for fun, and I prefered eating at home. I’ve been around cooks for years and I’ve eaten some extraordinary dishes, so I’ve always been confident I could cook, if I wanted to!
The course progressed over five weeks, at about week three Nikki talked to us about food blogging. For our ‘homework’ she asked us to go away and come back with something written for an imaginary blog. “About 300 words..?” said Nikki hopefully. Fired with enthusiasm I decided to do it for real, and so Deptford Pudding was born. I can’t say it was easy, I’m not the most computer-friendly person and I found the technicalities really hard work for the first couple of posts but then I began to get the hang of it. I can’t stick to 300 words though. “You’re an editor’s nightmare,” said my friend the editor.
Nikki is doing more courses at the Greenwich Community College next year, if you’re interested contact the college; or how about Nikki’s latest course ‘A Real Taste of Food Writing‘ which will take place at The Guildford in Greenwich where chef Guy Awford will cook a three course lunch, and reveal the behind-the-scenes life of a busy restaurant, as well as talking about his blog and answering questions.
It was 6.30 on a Sunday evening four weeks ago when Clarissa slipped in some mud on the marshes and broke her arm. We dashed first to Sheppey hospital, where she was x-rayed and put in a half plaster, and then immediately onto the Medway Hospital in Chatham clutching a letter which the nurse assured us would move us to the head of the queue in A & E.
At 9.00pm we reached Chatham, the waiting area in the biggest A & E in Kent was hot, sweaty, and packed… standing room only. After a warm sunny day, most of the people waiting were dressed for a late summer barbeque, some were in sports strip limping and clutching knees or ankles. A couple of people were covered in blood, it was like a scene from ‘Blade Runner’ I thought, complete with two policemen in Robocop gear marshaling the queue at reception. Large family groups squatted on the floor eating bags of crisps from a kiosk selling drinks and sandwiches. I asked when the kiosk closed, “we’re open 24/7,” was the glazed reply. Not that it mattered I had very little money and in our dash we’d left the means to get cash behind. The lurcher was abandoned outside in the car park, which was of course pay and display 24/7.
Once, for the ‘News of the World,’ I photographed “24 Hours in Casualty”. The editor had decided Guys on a Saturday would be crammed with dramatic human interest stories ripe for the picking. I was given the night shift, 10pm Saturday till 10am Sunday, the period expected to yield the most bloody drama. But Casualty was eerily quiet and empty at midnight. The bored nurse on the desk said, “Why’d you come here? If you wanted some action you should have gone to Lewisham.” A couple of people drifted in with minor cuts and bruises, then some very hard looking men arrived and seeing me with my camera one of them said “Point that thing at us sunshine and you’ll be sorry.” So I didn’t. The next night we heard that someone had dropped dead in the car park outside, and a deranged gunman had dashed in firing a shot into the ceiling. The feature never appeared.
After waiting six hours at Medway we were seen at 3am by an orthopedic specialist who announced he would have to straighten Clarissa’s strangely bent arm, it was, said the tired doctor, “a dinner fork fracture”, a literal description of the shape of her arm, which had been forced into her wrist. Straighten it now he meant as he called for help, no anesthetic just two men pulling and tugging at her wrist and elbow.
Straightened to his satisfaction her arm was fully plastered, “What colour would you like?” said the smiling plasterer. “White” we said in unison, because we’re traditionalists. He shook his head sadly, “We’ve red, blue, and pink.” Pink turned out to be a shade I’d call ‘kinky pink’ so we went for that. Another wait in a bleak corridor for an x-ray, you can just see the pink plaster in the reflection, then home as dawn broke.
A few days later and we’re back in Chatham seeing the consultant. “It’s a positive Terry Thomas.” He almost beamed, a little too pleased with himself, “we’re probably going to have to operate.”
We asked to be transferred to Lewisham hospital, and so a week later we’re seeing a different consultant. This one looked a bit like Boris Johnson but without the bedside manner. By way of a hello he said ‘”I hope you realise how serious this is?” His students milled around the x-ray, clucking. “We’ll have to wait for it to mend, then break it again and insert a plate.”
Since Clarissa broke her arm she’s been completely out of action and in a lot of pain. Suddenly I’m a full-time carer, cooking breakfast and making endless cups of tea, plus a snack at lunch time, and then dinner. I’m enjoying being the cook and deciding what’s for dinner, I’m even enjoying the shopping.
We’ve had some simple dishes, salads and soup, and some more imaginative cooking with fish and rabbit, but Clarissa has insisted on making the bread single-handed (hah-hah).
She’s decided her favourite meal is one of the simplest: poached eggs with chips. Not potato chips, but parsnip and beetroot chips. We rarely eat potatoes since deciding that they don’t really taste of anything anymore. (I can still remember the last time I ate a potato that tasted remotely like potatoes should taste, and that was around 1990.)
Every week since September I’ve bought eggs from Mike of Mersham Game at Brockley Market. Mike has 20,000(!) free-range hens, and his neighbour has 2,000 free-range ducks, I’ve been buying hen and duck eggs from his stall every Saturday. When he sees me and the wonder-lurcher wandering his way Mike picks up the egg boxes and starts filling them. Duck eggs are my favourite, they’re bigger than hens’ eggs with more flavour. Duck eggs contain less water than hens eggs and therefore are brilliant for baking. Want to bake light fluffy cakes? Use duck eggs… Mike sells hens eggs for £1 a half dozen, and duck eggs for £1.50 a half dozen. A bargain!
Walking around the market on Saturday we struck up a conversation with Luke, who is studying painting at Camberwell Art College. He caught our attention because he looked as if he’d just stepped out of a fashion shoot in his black velvet jacket, carrying a brace of still-feathered partridge dangling from his wrist. Like a willowy and more handsome version of Pete Doherty, Luke admitted he’d been vegetarian up till three weeks earlier, but he’d been attracted by the traditional offerings from Mersham Game. We wondered what he had planned for the partridge. “I’m going to put them in a pot, with some other things,” he said, vaguely but at the same time confidently. Which is exactly what I would have said…
Here’s my ‘recipe’ for poached egg with root vegetable chips (that’s French fries for anyone reading this in North America!). I used a duck egg because they are bigger, and taste more ‘eggy’. And I always use dripping to fry the chips, but you could use vegetable oil.
Poached Egg and Chips
Preparation time: 5 minutes to peel the vegetables and chop into chips.
Cooking times: 10 minutes to par-boil the chips. 15 – 20 minutes to fry the chips. 3 minutes to cook each poached egg.
Ingredients (per person) :
Flour for dusting the chips
1 or 2 parsnips, washed.
1 small beetroot, peeled.
Half a swede (or less), peeled.
1 sweet potato, washed. I try to use the orange fleshed sweet potato.
200g beef dripping, or if you use vegetable oil you’ll need sufficient oil for a depth of about 25 – 35 mm.
Clear malt vinegar, about a quarter cupful.
1 duck egg.
Black pepper, and sea salt.
Cut the vegetables into chip sized pieces, the bigger they are the longer they’ll need to cook. But, if you use beetroot cut them smaller, and try to keep them separate from the rest of the vegetables because they’ll stain them. (I fried the beetroot separately in a small saucepan using an extra 100g of dripping.)
Par-boil the chips for 10 minutes, or less, don’t let them get too soft. Test with a pointed knife.
While the chips are simmering, melt the dripping in a deep saucepan, mine is 200 mm in diameter and 125 mm tall. Heat till it fizzles if you dip the tip of a knife dipped in flour into the fat.The melted dripping should be about 25 mm deep, so this is shallow frying.
When the chips are par-boiled, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Scatter flour across a plate and toss each chip in the flour till they’re coated on every side. Then drop the chips into the hot dripping. Move the chips around in the fat, turning them with a palette knife making sure they are cooking evenly.
While they are cooking heat a saucepan of water till it boils. The water should be at least 75 mm deep. Prepare the eggs: (I cook them one at a time), have a cup or ramekin ready for each egg, and break the eggs into the cups. Heat your oven to plate-warming temperature, and put a plate in the oven to warm. If you’re only poaching one egg there’s no need to do this, but if you’re poaching 2 or 3 or 4, or more, then you’ll need to keep them warm while you cook all of the eggs. I’ve poached 6 eggs using this method, they stay warm without the yolks setting. If you use a large pan of water, I believe you can poach 4 – 6 eggs more or less at the same time, but I’ve never tried.
It is difficult to burn the chips but if you think they are ready before the eggs, just lift them out with a slotted spoon and put them in the oven to keep warm.
About 5 minutes before you expect to serve the finished dish, tip the vinegar into the boiling water. This stops the egg whites dispersing. (Don’t put any salt into the water.) Slightly reduce the heat so the water just goes off the boil. Take a hand whisk and vigorously stir the simmering water, I like to think stirring clockwise lets gravity give you a hand.
When you have a vortex in the water take an egg and quickly slide the egg into the centre of the swirling water. The egg will disappear from view in the water but don’t worry. Set a timer for 3 minutes for a soft egg yolk, more for hard. Hens eggs will take half a minute less. My experience is that it is very difficult to over-cook a poached egg.
Have your serving plate ready, check the chips, they should be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Scoop them out of the fat with a slotted spoon and arrange them on the plate. After 3 minutes, carefully scoop the poached egg from the water again with a slotted spoon and arrange the egg on top of the chips. Scatter with sea salt and black pepper and serve.
©2011 David Porter.