Friday, 4 December 2009

BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE


I've had to scrape a thin dusting of ice off the car twice this week, and I've got the heating on all day, which means winter is finally here. Plus, I've got my annual head-cold, and for the past twenty-four hours have been dreading losing my sense of taste.

The colder weather has brought with it thoughts of warming, homely meals: bangers and mash with onion gravy, slow-cooked casseroles, and tonight's Friday Night Supper - slow-roasted loin of pork with gratin dauphinois and braised red cabbage.

Friday Night Supper is usually an occasion, of a sort, in my house. It has been designated "gastropub night" because I cook a gastropub type meal for a friend who for the past two years has been living on his own and subsists on pasta for the intervening days. He is one of my favourite dinner guests because he loves food, so cooking for him is always a pleasure. I try to make something different each week, but more often than not, we end up having some variant on the slow-cooked lamb tagine number. I don't do elegant cuisine minceur for this friend: he likes big, robust meals with lots of home-made bread, and plenty of Leffe beer.

Tonight's menu is adapted from a recipe in Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites book, which is full of quick to make, delicious food. Officially, the pork should be roasted for about 24 hours, but her recipe is for 12, while mine is for 3. I tend to roast the meat for a minimum of three hours, by which time my house is full of wonderful, comforting, roasty smells, and the pork is tender, succulent and melt in the mouth. I still can't get the hang of crackling, though. My oven is quirky and has a rather annoying habit of cutting-out (and tripping the electricity in the house) if it gets too hot, so proper crackling is not always possible. But even without 'proper' crackling, this is a lovely dish.

Gratin Dauphinoise rates very high up on my list of comfort foods. I love the softness of it, the way the cream and potatoes meld together, the whisper of garlic and nutmeg. I know it's full of double-cream, but sometimes we need naughty but nice food. It's always greeted with sighs of pleasure when I serve it.

Red cabbage always reminds me of my student days. When I was in my final year, I moved in with my friend, Lucy, and a bunch of her friends (my friends were linguists and had all buggered off to do their year out in France or Germany). We shared a big, draughty Victorian house on the edge of Exeter city centre, 5 minutes from The Black Horse pub and Carlo's Chippy. We were quite a mixed bag of people (there were 7 of us) but we were all rather swotty, which helped because I really needed some focus to finish my degree. We rarely ate together, unless it was someone's birthday, in which case us girls would make curries, or at Christmas, when we managed to produce a very fine Christmas dinner on the meagre remains of our termly allowances. Otherwise, it was the usual young-people-living-together-scenario of named milk cartons in the fridge and cupboard boundaries very clearly drawn. One young man had a cupboard full of Fray Bentos pies, and would go home on a regular basis and return on Sunday evening with a rucksack full of M&S ready meals his mum had bought him. I flirted with vegetarianism, figuring it was cheaper, but then ended up having to eat my own weird stews. This is where the red cabbage comes in......

At that time, I did not realise that red cabbage needs a dash of vinegar or lemon juice to stop it going blue. My mother used to cook red cabbage a lot and I loved the deep wine colour of it, speckled with cloves. Of course, I couldn't be bothered to ring her to ask her how to cook it, so I learnt by trial and error instead.

I like to cook red cabbage very slowly, with aromatics such as cloves, ginger and cinnamon, and some brown sugar to sweeten it. Sometimes I add apple slices or baby carrots. It's definitely a vegetable that benefits from slow cooking, and when I serve it it is often slightly caramalised. It goes well with the gratin dauphinois - the spiciness cuts into the creaminess of the potatoes.

Attempting to "crack the crackling", so to speak, today, I scored the skin of the pork deeply with my sharpest knife, and then rubbed in a marinade of sea salt, garlic, sherry vinegar and crushed fennel seeds. I'll probably put the meat in around 3pm. While it's cooking, I'll be making soft amaretti biscuits to have for pudding.

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