A weekend of cooking

I went to my parents’ place in Oxford for the weekend, and as usual spent most of the time in the kitchen. I love cooking there, listening to Radio 4, going into the garden from time to time to pick some herbs, stirring pots on the Aga. And it reminds me of my teenage years, when I spent far more time making pastry, creme patissiere, hummus and chocolate cakes than doing my schoolwork.

I also really enjoy food shopping in Oxford, because it’s smaller-scale and less hectic than London. This time, as usual, I went to the covered market, and made a beeline for Fellers, the fabulous organic butcher’s. I owed my father a birthday present, and thought of cooking him something exciting for dinner. I considered grouse, but thought they had too high a ‘grapple factor’ (you’ll have to read my book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper for a full explanation of this term). In the end, I bought him an enormous live crab from the fishmonger’s next door, and stocked up at Feller’s on other things: venison to cook for my brother and sister-in-law on Sunday, chicken carcasses for making stock, streaky smoked bacon, and, as an afterthought, some pig’s ears.

I struggled home with all this on the bus, and noticed at one point that there was a CLAW poking out of my shopping bag – an escape attempt perhaps?

My father was amazed to find a live crab in the kitchen sink – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been given one, and it reminded him of his childhood in Lincoln, when my grandmother would serve dressed crab to him and his three brothers as a very occasional treat.

Anyway, I cooked the crab, somewhat guiltily, but with my usual feeling that if one is going to eat living creatures at all, one must be prepared to face up to the fact that death is involved… I made some mayonnaise, and meringues as the usual side-effect; and set the venison to marinate in red wine, ginger and spices. The pig ears were a bit hairy, so I singed off the bristles with a gas poker in the fireplace, to the vast amusement of my pa. After a quick call to one of the chefs at Bar Shu to check the recipe, I blanched them in boiling water and then simmered them in 卤 水 – a broth coloured with soy sauce and flavoured with aromatics. When they were very tender, I pressed them into a terrine with heavy weights.

For dinner, we assembled a chisel and a hammer, and a set of old nutcrackers and prongs. The crab, of course, had a very high ‘grapple factor’ itself, but my father thought it was worth it because it was so delicious. We ate the flesh from the claws and legs with brown bread, mayonnaise and salad, and had the brown meat mashed up on toast for lunch the next day.

The meringues went to my grandmother, who loves them, and the venison ended up in a slow-cooked stew with bacon, carrots, onions, juniper and herbs. My brother and his wife recently had a second baby and are exhaused, so I gave them a meals-on-wheels Sunday lunch – leek soup followed by the stew, mashed potatoes, kale with ginger and garlic, and then apple-and-quince crumble for pudding.

And the pig’s ears? We had the terrine sliced, with a dip of Chinkiang vinegar – delicious! I would post a photo, but unfortunately I’m now back in London and forgot to bring the remains home with me.

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