I'm away from home for a few days at my mum's and have just eavesdropped on one of the most pleasing phone calls ever.
I left two hefty teenagers with a freezer full of ready meals (as requested, and against all my own principles) that required the most minimum of intervention on their part. After all, hand to mouth is about as far as it goes at that age, and words are fairly monosyllabic at the best of times.
But today is different. Today is pancake Tuesday and, for the first time in their entire lives, they are about to miss out on a certain unwavering tradition and ritual. And it is all too much to bear. So Tom is on the phone to my mother wanting instructions for knocking up a few pancakes. (Of course, he could look in one of my hundreds of cookery books, but it's rather nice that his first source of advice is Grandma. After all, this source of advice is completely reliable, unlike his mother's, it seems.)
Today you are making a wonderful dish of smoked haddock with potato and bacon (page 66). As you put it, 'the perfect marriage of smoked fish and cream.' I happen to love smoked fish but smoked haddock has a habit of repeating on me for ever more, so I'm particularly interested in a recipe such as this where 'cream and smoke produce a calm and gentle partnership, working in dish after dish.' The result is a more refined version of the haddock poached in milk that I am used to. I like the way the taste is layered up, layer upon layer, with the gently fried bacon and potato chips and then the haddock and infused cream sauce. Strong flavours, each one balancing and setting off the others.
There are excellent smoke houses here on the coast in Northumberland, at Craster and Sea Houses, which I never fail to make a point of visiting on any trip up here. My Grandpa was a fishmonger here and the smell of Granny's fried fish and bacon is an amalgamation of scents that has travelled with me throughout life - no one fried a fish like my Granny with her black iron frying pan in her little 1930's outhouse - the mangle still in the corner, the pull down lid of the larder cupboard (with it's punctured zinc panels) covered in flour, and the little cream curved fridge with its chunky heavy door...a living history in action,never modernised, never changed for all her married life.
You have been to the butcher's and come away with some neck of lamb. You love the fact that you 'can make a fragrant, even luxurious supper out of something some people boil up for the dog'. This is where your butcher wins hands down, with the cheaper cuts of meat which need slow-cooking. You find the big supermarkets 'shunning this richly flavoured cut in favour of the neck fillet at over 12 quid a kilo.'
The recipe you make is for 'Braised neck of lamb with apricots and cinnamon' (page 62) - a great combination for these dank dark times. Your preferred starch of the moment is the fat, pearl-like mograbia (like large couscous), which is better boiled than steamed. This is one to look out for and possibly becoming a little more wider known and available these days. I have cooked with it in the past but it is always good to have your memory jogged again to consider using something on a more regular basis. I remember it being more substantial and certainly more glossy and satisfying to look at on the plate. So I'll add it to my list this week along with the middle neck of lamb, or small shanks if this is hard to get hold of. The tang of the apricots cuts the fat in this dish like cooking apples work well with pork. There is a rich spicy mix with cumin, coriander seed, chili, garlic, ginger, lemon zest and cinnamon; and fresh mint and lemon zest to serve. This will banish the grey days of February and call to us of Moorish things.