Finding your rhythm

Cooking becomes much easier when you find your rhythm.  Your life might be quite different to mine, so you will need to work out how you can apply Grandmother’s Cooking principals to meet your own needs.  Let me tell you more about the rhythms that work in my kitchen.

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I have worked from home for more than 20 years now, with my husband also working at home.  We live in the countryside, on what I guess you might describe as a smallholding – there are about 7 acres of permanent pasture for grazing, which has mainly been by sheep, an orchard, vegetable garden, fruit cage and we keep chickens for eggs.  We have also reared turkeys and kept pigs – currently on a friend’s land.

The daily rhythm

I eat three meals a day (my husband skips breakfast).  Our main meal is in the evening, although as I get older, I am finding this the one I could most easily miss.  My husband, however, grew up having his main meal at lunchtime.  When we married, but I was out at work, he happily ate two “main meals” a day!  We have completely different circadian rhythms – he is a night owl whilst I am an early bird.  He often has something for supper after I have gone to bed.  Combining just these two differences is something of a challenge, but nothing, I imagine, to meeting the needs of a larger family where there might be additional dietary needs.  I can see how tempting it might be to meet some of these with bought in ready meals.

Britain’s food culture is still based around three meals a day, consisting of one or two courses. The preferred time of our evening meal when eating out has been getting earlier for about a decade, although long working hours make this difficult for many to replicate at home.  Various patterns of intermittent fasting are growing in popularity, and we are eating less meat.

In many respects we are fairly typical of the general trend, however the big exception is that all of our meals, (bar one night a week out), are homemade and eaten at the table.  The ritual of laying the table, choosing the wine and sitting down to converse as we eat is sacrosanct.  We have my nephews here once a week, and they are now old enough to wait until six o’clock so that we can all eat together.  I see how important this is to them and one of my biggest concerns about modern lifestyles is that family meals are so rare.  My brother and his wife don’t get home until at least six thirty and by the time a meal is ready it is almost time for the children to go to bed.  Many households have to drop the children off at a breakfast club before work too, so the only opportunity for family meals is the weekend.  I’m not surprised that the flexibility of home working took such a deep hold during the pandemic.

The most important lesson I would impart from my daily rhythm is that of planning.  It doesn’t need to take much time, just get into the habit of asking yourself, at the end of every meal, what you need to do for the next one.  If you wait until the end of a busy day to survey your fridge/cupboards to decide what to cook the options will have become severely limited compared with the same ingredients considered some hours earlier.  The night before you can decide to get something out of the freezer, soak some beans, or some other rudimentary preparation.  Another example of how this works for me, with the luxury of being at home, is that I can prepare for more than just the three meals of the day.  Typically, I will cook, or prepare, about 5 things a day.  They still get eaten across the same three meal pattern, but might include a dessert, stock from the bones of that day ready for soup the next, or beginning an overnight dough for bread the following day.

The weekly rhythm

By planning, we have moved from the daily rhythm into the weekly.  Most people do some sort of planning for their weekly shop, and if you don’t, you definitely should!  It cuts down on wastage, saves money and relieves the stress of having to think every day about what to eat.  There becomes a natural progression through meals.  

In the past, the week’s meals revolved around the Sunday Roast.   The following extract from Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England illustrates the point:

VICARAGE MUTTON

  • Hot on Sunday, 
  • Cold on Monday,
  • Hashed on Tuesday,
  • Minced on Wednesday,
  • Curried on Thursday,
  • Broth on Friday,
  • Cottage Pie on Saturday.

Although few would be able to make a joint of meat last all week, using the Sunday Roast as a starting point is very good practice indeed.  Pretty much everyone in Britain loves the tradition of a Sunday Roast as evidenced by how heavily booked pubs are for this event.  Bringing everyone together around the table is the essence of home cooking so how sad it is that this now more rarely happens at home. The central ingredient can be varied, and thus often the traditional accompaniments, but the Vicarage Mutton template can stand up to any meat.  

Turning the bones into stock is the logical next step, then using this to make soup.  Note that “cold on Monday” is a perfectly acceptable option.  You don’t have to bust a gut for every meal and as putting a potato in the oven might be all that is required on this day, turning the bones into stock is then easily incorporated.  Depending on the size of your joint of meat, and the number of people in your family, a selection of “reheated leftover” dishes would soon expand your repertoire.

I rarely cook one dish without having a follow-on in mind.  The follow-on is not always immediate because I have a decent sized freezer which helps prevent things becoming too monotonous, and it is always comforting to know that there is something to hand in emergencies.  The freezer rather than a takeaway would be my go-to when I am too busy to cook a meal from scratch. I always batch cook casseroles, ragὺ and soup so that there is a spare.

Thus far, everything I have suggested has been based around meat.  Our lunch is usually our meat-free, or meat-light, meal.  One day is soup, usually the same day that I make bread.  I make one batch of overnight risen dough a week and freeze some bread sliced for toast.  This overnight dough is an essential routine, which once established becomes second nature, so think about how it would fit into your normal routine.  Perhaps make the dough on a Friday night for baking in time for Saturday lunch?  I also make sourdough, which I use for Pizza, one of our lunchtime favourites.  Pasta is another, quick and easy, with an infinite variety of sauces.   I suspect that many of my lunchtime meals would work in the evening for workers who want to eat soon after getting home.  You don’t, of course, have to make everything.  If I had easy access to a good baker I might buy my bread – and I do when I get the chance, to extend the choice of bread in the freezer.  

When planning what to buy don’t restrict yourself to the obvious reared meats and, when you do opt for them, remember the cheaper cuts and offal to ensure the whole animal gets eaten.  We also eat fish at least twice a week, often three times if we also choose it when we go out to dinner.  It is quick to cook and easy to digest, making it an ideal after work dinner.  Sourcing fish is the biggest problem, I buy it on a Wednesday at the local market and there are now more home delivery schemes.

I’ll talk more about these options in another blog post, but for now here is a sample menu plan for a week:


LunchDinner
SDrinks with nibbles – olives and salted pistachio nutsFallow Deer Wellington with Pommes Dauphinois, Baked Crown Prince Squash & Kale Crisps
MCrown Prince Soup with cheese on toastCold Venison Wellington, baked sweet potato & pickled walnuts
THomemade bread rolls with baconToad in the Hole, onion gravy, carrots & peas
WKippers with granary breadSquid & Chickpea Ragout
TPenne with spiced tomato sauceDinner Out (fish)
FBlue Cheese & Pear Toast with landcress and walnutsStinco di maiale with polenta
SRoast tomato soup with root vegetable crisps GingerbreadRoe Deer & Chestnut casserole with jacket potato & sprout tops

I haven’t listed my breakfasts, which were mostly a homemade muesli blend with yoghurt, preserved quince and fresh apple apart from the two days when I made porridge.  I also made Medlar Jelly and Mincemeat during this week, which don’t feature here as a meal, but will help in the future (as the pickled walnuts did above).  

Venison is quite dominant during this mid-November week.  There is a shortage of pheasant this year, owing to Avian Influenza, so venison is filling this gap.  It was the first week that the weather had really started to turn cold, with the first frost of the year, so we were in the mood for hearty stews.  Which brings me to the next important rhythm – the seasons.

Seasonal Rhythms

The seasons have the biggest influence on what we eat.  They provide variety but, as you will have seen from the example above, when an ingredient is in its prime, we might eat it several times in close succession, knowing that it might well be a year before we eat it again.

I keep my database of recipes tagged by ingredient, season and occasion.  The occasion might be personal to me (e.g. shoot lunch) or one that everyone might be sharing – the big ones are things like Easter, but I have a particular fondness for the now less followed, like today, which is Stir-up Sunday, when I think of those who are most likely to be making the same as me because of the occasion.

The pace set by the seasons is quite varied.  Dealing with the orchard harvest is a remarkably busy time for me, making medlar jelly marked the end of that period, but it is immediately followed by the busy preparations for Christmas, which actually first began with the summer preserves.  

Our minds and bodies are still hugely influenced by the seasons, – the amount of daylight, temperature, even moon phases.  We may not all be as aware of these changes as our ancestors would have been, but I think the influence is felt nonetheless.

When categorising my recipes, I sometimes have difficulty in allocating them to a month or season.  Where you live obviously makes a tremendous difference – the hours of daylight and temperature differences being quite considerable throughout our island.   Meteorologists insist on dividing the year into four seasons of equal length, but I have come to realise that there are, or should be, such a thing as “cooks’ seasons”.  I was interested to see Mo Wilde, in her book “The Wilderness Cure” divide her foraging year into five seasons.  Chef Tommy Banks in Roots allocates five months of the year to winter for similar reasons – nothing much new really appears in this time.  Our largely urban food journalists can’t wait to have something fresh to write about and so are always heralding the arrival of new produce way before it is seen here.  And I live in the south, unlike Tommy (Yorkshire) and Mo (Scotland), although I am at 600 feet on a north facing hillside, which has a vastly different microclimate to the south side or the valleys, especially in the spring.  However, the reward for storing my recipes in this way is that each new month and season I can view a list of recipe ideas  – by this age there are more ideas than there are days in which to cook them!

During the summer, it is hard to keep pace with the new ingredients, which often have quite short lives, and need truly little done to them other than picking when in their prime.  In contrast, once Christmas is over, we have a long time still to go with just the same ingredients.  Inevitably we reach out more often for imports during this time, but we also need to become more inventive about how we serve our own ingredients.  Cooking skills are also linked quite strongly with seasons, preserving being the most obvious one.  If you find yourself getting bored with food in spring, perhaps you just need to challenge yourself to find news methods of cooking and new recipes. 

 I close with the recipe for Stinco di Maiale, since it is perhaps the only one from my sample menu that you may not have come across before.  It is a Tyrolean stew of fresh pork hocks, which I first ate on a skiing holiday.  Together with cheese enriched polenta (or you could substitute a creamy potato mash) it is a hearty dish for which you need to have worked up an appetite. Although you can easily find cured ham hocks, you may need to order the same joints of fresh meat specially from your butcher.  They should be unbelievably cheap, although we all know that as soon as there is a demand, prices go up – as we have seen with lamb shanks – the equivalent joint from a sheep.  Depending on the size of the shin and your appetite, one shin will probably feed two people.  

Conscious of the cost of cooking in the oven, I turn off the heat after the first hour of cooking and leave it to finish in the residual heat.  

STINCO DI MAIALE ALLA TIROLESE

Serves 4

2-4 pork shins (fresh ham hocks)

salt and pepper

olive oil

2 sticks of celery

1 onion

1 large carrot

2 cloves garlic

8 fresh sage leaves

needles from a 4″ sprig of rosemary

250mkl/10 fl oz dry white wine

4 tbsps grappa

4 juniper berries, crushed

250ml/10 fl oz meat stock 

Prepare the pork shins by burning off any stubborn hairs with a blowtorch.  Wash and dry them and season with salt and pepper.

Put the oil in an ovenproof casserole.  Brown the shins and then lift them out.

Whilst the meat is browning chop the celery, onion, carrot, garlic, sage and rosemary very finely.  When the meat is out of the pan add the chopped ingredients with a teaspoon of salt and sauté gently for 5 minutes.  Place the shins on top and turn up the heat.  Pour on the wine and grappa and let them bubble for a minute turning the shins over once.  Add the crushed juniper berries and half the stock.  Cover the casserole and place it in the oven set at 200˚C.

Cook for 2 hours, turning the shins over once or twice and adding more stock if the cooking juices are too dry.  You should be able to turn off the oven after the first hour and leave it to finish cooking in the residual heat.  Use a separator to remove the fat before serving the sauce.


POLENTA

For 4:

250g/9oz polenta (not instant)

1.5l/2¾ pints water

2 tsps salt

75g/3 oz butter

75g/3 oz Fontina (or substitute Ogle Shield) cheese cut into cubes

50g/2 oz freshly grated parmesan

Bring the water to the boil in a large saucepan.  Add the salt and then carefully pour in the polenta a little at a time, stirring to ensure you do not get lumps.  Be careful that the hot polenta does not spit out onto your hands or face.  Keep stirring for 30 – 45 minutes until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan, and then stir in the butter and cheeses.



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