Before I start recounting this dish, I promised - or threatened, depending on one's viewpoint - to write a bit about what I've been reading. In real life I have much less time to read for pleasure but it has never stopped me - reading is a way of life and not a hobby for me. The festive period is giving me lots of reading time and I have happily accumulated a pile of books, novels and food-themed books of various kinds, to gorge on during my holiday from work.
The biggest of these books by far is the Larousse Gastronomique, which is - literally - an enormous and weighty tome and lends to me - I think - some culinary gravitas as a foodie. My brother and sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas and it is tremendously useful for me because I'm not a proper foodie: that is, there are lots of things I don't know and there are lots of things I haven't tried and need to learn. I haven't, for example: killed a crab or lobster/made meringues or pavlova (I know how sad that sounds)/made Christmas pudding/made any pudding that involved muslin and waterbaths, though I have managed cheesecakes in waterbaths/gutted a fish. There will be more to add to the list, but I can't quite remember what right now. The Larousse is thus going to be an indispensable kitchen companion that will allow me to bluff my way through the kind of recipes that assume a cook more steeped in innate culinary knowhow than me; it is also long enough to ensure that even I won't try to read it from cover to cover.
Other cookbooks look gauche and immature next to the Larousse, but I have stockpiled some anyway, mainly through a combination of Amazon offers and the Borders post-Christmas sale. Before Christmas I bought myself Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham, The Prawn Cocktail Years, which is a witty account of favourite British restaurant dishes from the fifties, sixties and seventies. I wasn't born until the seventies, but still I recall many of the dishes evoked with a smidgeon of nostalgia because in my world they were still circulating in the eighties (at which point trendy Britain had moved on to other kinds of embarrassing foodie fashion): I remember prawn cocktail, coq au vin, beef bourgignon, peach melba, and so on. Actually I still eat prawn cocktail and I wouldn't honestly object to coq au vin or steak garni, though I recoil at the thought of chicken kiev or duck a l'orange (I didn't like that first time round, even). Anyway The Prawn Cocktail Years is fascinating, funny and the fact that it gives recipes for all these dishes we remember and purport to despise serves to remind us of the inexorable pull our food memories have on what we really want to eat (as opposed to what we think we should want to eat). As an aside, I bought Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories in Oxfam yesterday for almost nothing; I have yet to take it from the bag so will report later.
Before Christmas I also bought Sophie Conran's Pies, mainly because I saw a delicious-looking photo of a Spanish chicken pie from that book but also because I was seduced by the pink cover (I know...) and the incredible Amazon price. In the Borders sale I bought Angela Boggiano's Pie, again attracted by the (wittier) cover and because this book had more to read, about the history and traditions of different sorts of pie. It was only once I realized that I had acquired two new pie books that it struck me that I hardly ever want to eat pie. That notwithstanding, both of these books are fun to flick through and imagine making pies; I am determined to set to making one sometime soon.
In the Borders sale I also snapped up Skye Gyngell's A Year in My Kitchen, which is a beautiful book, written by the Australian-born but now UK-dwelling Vogue food writer. I own a few Australian cookbooks and I like their breezy, relaxed, often Asian-influenced food, but they seem to work better here in the summer than in the winter, when their recipes seem too light to hit the spot. A Year in my Kitchen is based on the seasons and the recipes all look incredibly delicious, stylish, and best of all, easy - none of that pretentious food styling where you arrange slices of food in precarious towers in the middle of a huge white plate and call it food art. Is it me or does that kind of food not really call out for you to eat it? Skye's does, though, which raises it a notch.
Finally in the Borders sale I bought Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook; I love his style, because he can write as powerfully as (I presume) he can cook, and his book definitely makes me hungry, for steak and chips and proper rustic hearty fare. Mmm. This is a book to read but also to cook from; it appeals to the belly as to the mind.
I did receive two other foodie books for Christmas: one is Jeffrey Steingarten, It Must've Been Something I Ate, which I have dipped into - he writes well too, and very wittily, and the chapter on salt that I have read should be required reading for the Food Police - and the other is Julia and Julie, Julie Powell's tale of her project to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. I read this in one go on Boxing Day, shamelessly gorging myself on it (I do that with books, more than with food) and I found it intensely powerful, not because Julie set herself the mad task of 524 recipes in 365 days, but because she writes so honestly about herself and her life and how the project affected her. In truth, the project seemed to take over her life and sometimes it literally appeared to drive her crazy; I caught myself thinking that her husband must be a saint, not least because they never ate before 9 pm and often nearer midnight. I couldn't do what she did: all that French food would definitely leave me feeling like a stuffed goose myself, for one thing, and then there are the complicated techniques that took her and would take me a while to get to grips with. Jamie's book is far more accessible; we always eat before 9 pm; it isn't full of butter and cream; I haven't set a time limit. Nonetheless, I understand why Julie gets so frustrated when things don't work out - so do I, albeit at a lower level. My madness when the one-egg mayonnaise failed led me to cut my thumb on the Magimix was only rivalled by Tesco selling me the second off butternut squash in a row this week - did you know squash went off? I have always found them spookily long-lasting, but clearly not, or else I am the only one buying Tesco organic squash. What I am saying is that the Jamie project isn't all Happy Families either - and Simon is threatening to tell some of the stories from the Other Side, that is, the side of the husband who sees my wild-eyed frustration in the supermarket when they don't have the ingredients I need, or who calls impatiently on the sous-chef because I am too weak or the knife is too blunt to effect the perfect incision into a piece of fish or meat. It isn't as bad as Julie and Julia, though; I can't sustain that level of drama, and this book is way more reassuringly on my side, or so it feels.
Anyway the second squash to turn out to be off two hours after purchase was for dinner on Thursday evening, and we had to buy another in M and S. This was for stained glass lasagne with butternut squash, which is an interesting dish and not comparable to any pasta dish I've made before - I suppose it is an open lasagne, but with a twist. To make it, we made pasta as usual (we have recently been using OO flour where before we had O pasta flour, and it makes a world of difference) and after turning it into sheets in the machine, scattered herbs (parsley, sage and fennel tops) over one half, folded it up and rolled it back through the machine. You can see the herbs inside the pasta sheet so it looks like a stained glass window, sort of, hence the title. Meanwhile I had roasted the squash with bashed up fennel seeds, dried chilli and coriander seeds and then mashed it up to make baby food. I cooked the pasta and tossed it in butter and Parmesan. To serve, I smeared a layer of squash, a layer of pasta, another layer of squash, a top layer of pasta, plus a scattering of chopped fresh red chilli and then Parmesan for the table.
I loved the squash here, really flavoursome, and I liked the pasta but it felt like a lot of pasta. This may just have been because I was a bit overfed from Christmas or I might have been stingy with the butter that I tossed the pasta in and so it went down less quickly than usual (which inevitably means that despite using warmed plates, the pasta began to cool down a bit). I love the idea, though, and the combination of flavours went really well. Next time I would use less pasta - there will be a next time, because it was a fun dish to create and assemble and it tasted good, an antidote to the meaty Christmas fare we'd had hitherto, as the Jamie project began again.