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Lessons from a family feast

“If you can eat with mates or friends or family, I mean, it's such a brilliant thing isn't it? If you feel really rubbish and you have a nice bit of food it makes you feel good, you know?” Jamie Oliver

The first thing I have to say here is not really a lesson but a question. Above is one of the group of photos that were taken after a big family gathering yesterday. Everyone is going home. Indeed the instigators of the event - my niece, her husband and her 18 months old son have already gone. Everyone was either having such a good time, or were really busy that nobody took a single photo. The question is - is this a good or a bad thing - or, of course, a bit of both? The photo above is, I suppose, not that great or that comprehensive. There is no food in sight. The teenagers and children are pulling faces and people are missing. Not just niece and family, but also my daughter-in-law, who took the photo and my older son who couldn't come. However, it does capture the joy of the occasion I think. Although - being family - there was the odd spat and spitting of the dummy. The main one of which I shall come to. Indeed the food writer M.F.K Fisher seemed to think that such events were fraught with disaster:

"Family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters."

And in spite of a minor bit of bad temper over overflowing juice, I have to say that the above statement does not apply. Well - other than the pre party tensions of getting everything ready - will it rain - will it be hot - will it be cold - where shall we sit, etc. So this photo reminds me of an occasion but has no relevance to the food that was served or how we all enjoyed the actual gathering. So we shall just have to rely on memory. Which might be a good thing. But then again it might not. And does a photograph capture the essence of the whole event anyway?

What I really wanted to be the focus of this post though is to take you through some of the foodie things I learnt from the exercise. And yes, even at the age of almost 80 I am still learning things, the main one being perhaps to go with my gut feeling rather than do as I'm told in a recipe.

I had decided to have a first course of nibbles, mostly with various things already available in the fridge, followed by Jamie Oliver's Chicken skewers and Carrot caponata with Yotam Ottolenghi's Cheesy baked polenta in tomato sauce. Dessert was a fruit salad provided by my niece and cookies from the granddaughters. And yes I did feature all of these things (I think) the other day, but this is a post mortem as it were.


There were several things on the table which we all picked at, but I'm commenting on just three.

Cucumber pickles

I featured the pickles the other day. I put them all out and I only have a few left, so they were popular. I'm not sure I have learnt anything from these, it's more a question. The recipe said to make sure the sugar had dissolved, but said nothing about the turmeric - which still hasn't dissolved and is sitting at the bottom of the jar. How can I get it to dissolve? Did I put too much in?

One thing I did learn though was that if you put something out on a plate with something to serve it with - tongs in this case - it will be eaten. If you just put it out in its jar - a couple of my spears of pickled asparagus left over from the wine night, then it won't. I still have a frustrating couple of pieces of pickled asparagus. I shall have to find an inventive way to use them in something.

These were from the current Coles Magazine as part of its feature on what to put in your kids' lunch boxes. I made the filling the day before - pretty standard and pretty simple, although I am always amazed at how much spinach and other green leaves shrink when you cook them. However, assembling them was not quite as easy. I think I had allowed the puff pastry to thaw too much, so it was a bit sticky. Learn from this. As soon as it is bendable start working on it. I would also add to their instructions to place your pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface - so much easier to handle this way. Also, contrary to their instructions, just put a teaspoon or so of the filling in the centre of the long edge, not all the way along. Otherwise it will all ooze out. And it really wasn't easy to shape them - because the pastry was too thawed I think. It stuck to itself all the time. However, if you remember the floured surface they're really quick and easy and almost infinitely variable as to what you stick in the middle of them. And good cold too. I only had a couple left and I've just eaten them for lunch. I had thought that if I had any left over I could give them to the parents of my grandchildren for their kids' lunchboxes. However, when I suggest this I was told that they wouldn't eat them - that like my own children and the children I taught, they won't eat 'fancy' stuff. Times haven't changed that much after all.

Since there were twelve of us - and the baby - I decided to make two rectangular pies rather than one round one - one for our Friday dinner and one for our Sunday feast. It's also from the Coles Magazine by the way. I have to say that it was pretty nice, but I don't think I shall do it again, because it was honestly a bit of a faff. Well I was trying to do the right thing by the pastry and did all the required chilling which meant that it took a while. Half an hour after the pastry was made and then another 15 minutes when it was rolled out. I wouldn't normally do this and I have yet to be convinced that your pastry is better for it.

However the real problem was the filling - well not the sour cream and cheese bit - that was just a case of mixing them together - although do take note that you need 200g sour cream for the pastry and another 200g for the filling. I hadn't noticed, so had to bulk the filling with ordinary cream and some lemon juice. No the real problem was the tomatoes. You had to slice 12! tomatoes, arrange on a lined baking tray and roast, turning them halfway for an hour. Well number one 12 sliced tomatoes will not fit on one baking tray, so I just used 7 or 8. Turning them over - I almost forgot - was tricky although I gradually worked out that it was easier with a palette knife than a pair of tongs. I almost forgot all about them as well, so they were probably a bit overcooked. I have to confess that 12 might have been better, but you need two trays for that.

The sour cream mixture wasn't enough either. But then I was making two in rectangular trays. I probably should have at least had another half quantity of the filling. Plenty of pastry though - indeed - too much. Plus you also have to roast those tomatoes on the top. Not difficult, but another tray to wash. Mind you I think they were essential to the final taste and also the final look. So - yes, fancy - but not repeatable I think. Not in the near future anyway. Maybe when I've forgotten the pain of it all. We had a very late dinner the night I cooked it for dinner.


Great success and pretty simple really. With a couple of caveats.

Jamie tells you to slice the potatoes and cook for 6 minutes in boiling water. Which I did. The implication was that you should put them straight into the boiling water, which I would not normally do. Root vegetables in cold water, everything else in boiling water is the rule isn't it? Now I wonder whether I should have followed my gut, for the finished potatoes were ever so marginally underdone. They needed a bit longer.

Flattening the fillets and rolling them up was a tiny bit tricky, but not really. Putting them on the skewers? Well I watched Gennaro Contadini doing it in the video below, and he did one fillet at a time. By the time I had finished I found that it was easier to line your five rolled fillets up and push the skewer through all of them at once. Much easier. He's obviously more of a purist than Jamie too because he pounded the filling in a mortar rather than doing it all in the food processor 'à la Jamie'

I made far, far too much but people it was worth it. One and a half fillets each is probably enough. Some of the remains went in doggy bags, some are waiting to be transformed into something else in the fridge. But they were very sensational. looking. I suppose the meat was a tiny bit bland, but the sauce from the juices was really nice and the potatoes were lovely - although, as I have said, would have been lovelier if cooked more before going into the baking tray. However, if you do make this put the skewers which you have cut down the middle on to a plate or dish with a lip because the juices will overflow on to the table, the floor, your husband's shoes - causing the meltdown of the whole event. Although the shoes were rescued and all is now well.


Honestly? Pretty sensational and pretty easy. Five stars to Ottolenghi. I have no comments to make about this at all really. I made it for my vegetarian granddaughter - and her mother as an aside because she is always looking for vegetarian things to cook for her. We all tucked in - so much so that there was only one piece of the polenta left which I shall have for lunch one day. The tomato sauce was really pretty standard and made with tinned tomatoes, the final topping of parsley and Parmesan was just a mix and the polenta was simplicity itself. Polenta - the baked kind anyway - is my new favourite thing I think. There's a video for this too - a simpler one. I don't know which Ottolenghi book this comes from - indeed whether it comes from a book at all.

Another Jamie recipe and from the same book as the skewers - Jamie Cooks Italy. The link here is to a website called Travel Gourmet, because Jamie himself has not published it online and neither has any other foodie magazine. In his introduction to the recipe in his book he says: "they're the star of the show, and, probably of the whole meal." Almost I think. They were pretty delicious, although I had made them the day before, and I served them cold - well warm - as a sort of salad. But there are none left and the recipe was asked for. I didn't learn a lot from this I guess, other than that you can use ordinary carrots and just slice them into similar sized pieces. And the Queen Vic market came up with some purple carrots, which bleed a bit like beetroot, so the overall colour of my dish was a rather darker hue.

The lady from Travel Gourmet was not quite as complimentary:

"I’d make the recipe again but I have to say it was a bit of a mission. It wasn’t a recipe you could just get going and then leave to gently simmer for an hour; it needed careful watching at all times for an hour!" Travel Gourmet

I guess she might be right if that was all that you were doing, but if you are in the kitchen doing other things, you just have to give it a minute's attention every now and then. But use a non-stick pan.


I suppose I have been cooking for a long time now, and so, having decided what to cook I then just had to plan out what to cook and when. What would reheat and what wouldn't. My husband thinks I worked too hard at it all but to me it was fun. It's what I like to do. As my sister likes to garden. It gives me a chance to immerse myself in my favourite activity and try new things.

I'm also relatively trained in where and how to seat everyone, but inevitably the best laid plans here are modified as we go along. Like can we fit twelve people and a baby around our one big garden table? Well yes, but it's a bit of a crush and somebody might be in the sun, and so, in the end the children stayed at our smaller table on their own. I'm pretty sure that David is right and that they prefer it like that but I also think we miss something by not having them sitting with we adults, and moreover spread amongst us rather than at one end of the table. Ann Patchett in her book The Dutch House talks about the kids/adult thing, although I think she is probably talking about younger children.

“The dinner was a huge production, with kids stashed in the den to eat off card tables like a collection of understudies who dreamed of one day breaking into the dining room.”

It's a dilemma isn't it?

I see now that I haven't really learnt anything much that is applicable in a general way. Maybe the puff pastry thing. Always lay it on a lightly floured surface, whatever you are doing with it. And don't thaw it out completely. Also it seems that my husband and I will never really learn how best to sit everyone, and also to stop stressing out about what is simply a family event, before everyone arrives.

Most of all perhaps - take the odd photo. Not all the time. Just every now and then.


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