"Simply by intelligently treating the freezer as a resource, we can gain immense benefits. We save money, we reduce waste, and we can often cope well with emergency situations." Stephanie Alexander
This lucky dip book is now quite old. It was written back in 1991 towards the end of her time at the grand mansion in Hawthorn that she turned into Stephanie's Restaurant. Alas I never went there, although David did. I did go to her initial Stephanie's in Fitzroy though sometime in the 70s. The food was wonderful. After the Hawthorn years - 21 in all I believe, she opened the Richmond Hill Larder with Will Studd - the cheese man - but sold out in 2002. The café and cheese room continued, but as a rather sad aside it has become a victim of COVID and closed down.
Stephanie meanwhile has been writing cookbooks - lots of them - including the massive Cook's Companion which has become a classic around the world. Nowadays though she is most famous for her work with children and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.
At the time of writing this particular book she would have been known as a haute cuisine kind of cook. Fancy food for a fancy restaurant at high prices. And a fixed menu. No choice. Now is that arrogant or just interesting? No choice I mean. You do put yourselves in the hands of the chef, but then I guess if the chef is thought to do no wrong then this is no bad thing. Although it doesn't take into account personal preferences does it? For example on the menu that I picked for this lucky dip post there is Fillet steak with bone marrow, bordelaise sauce. For some reason that I can't really put my finger on bone marrow is one of those things I just can't come at, even though, of course, I have consumed it when it has melted into a stock or a soup. And here comes a memory from long, long ago of an old boyfriend saying that he loved to pick the marrow out of the bones in a stew and eat it. It was the best part. He was from Yorkshire and somehow a bit Heathcliff like. But that's another world away. I was young. Oh the memories that food revives.
And so was Stephanie. This beautiful portrait adorns one of the pages of the Preface. She has natural beauty as well as the beauty of youth that we all have. And that when we are young we do not recognise in ourselves. We think ourselves, at the very least, imperfect, but mostly almost ugly. I know I did, and now I look back at the few photographs of myself when young and think that actually I didn't look that bad. These days we all look grandmotherly, although, at least with Stephanie you can see the traces of that earlier beauty there.
Interestingly, going back to the book, there are very few food photographs in this book, in spite of it's beautiful cover - a detail from Jan Davidsz de Heem's Still life with fruit. There are a couple of sections of plates of some of the dishes - a long way from the recipes they represent. Rather like Robert Carrier's early books. Somehow old-fashioned, like the restaurant itself. But then, on the whole, with the exception of a couple of books, Stephanie's books are not illustrated. The Cook's Companion also has just the odd full page photograph but not of the food itself. They tend to be more landscapes, or producers with their products. I wonder if this comes from her or from her publishers? Mind you, in the case of the Cook's companion I guess it would have been impossible to have photographs of the recipes - can you imagine the size of the book you would have ended up with? Somebody has to do a 'best of' selection someday - with photographs. Like At Elizabeth David's Table.
This book, however, with no photographs, contains 20 menus, each with a lengthy introduction which often includes other recipes. A little bit like Nigella's latest effort - which I shall come to in time. The menu that I picked out at random is called To freeze or not to freeze and the introduction is all about how best to use your freezer, with the actual menu using some of the things that she has talked about. The menu is Tomato soup with basil and croutons, that fillet steak, and Lemon delicious pudding.
So what did she have in her four freezers? Yes four. Some of what she mentions is pretty standard - well for a dedicated cook anyway - breadcrumbs, carcases to be made into stock, the stock itself, egg whites, croutons but there are other more interesting things.
First that stock - the stock itself is obvious, but she also suggests reducing some of that stock down, so that it can be used in a number of different ways to intensify flavour - sort of instead of a chicken stock cube.
Then there are flavoured butters.
Now I have made the occasional simple flavoured butter by chopping some herbs and crushing some garlic to mix with butter, and she does do this. Indeed the soup has a basil butter dropped into it at the end. But it's not a very ordinary herb butter.
"After thorough blending of the torn leaves and the butter (about 250g butter to 1 well packed cup of leaves) in the food processor, we push it painstakingly through a drum sieve so that the flavour is concentrated, but most of the fibrous stem is removed. The resultant butter is a lovely apple green."
Now could you be bothered? One should try at least once to see if indeed it is much better than what a 'normal' cook like me would do.
She also has a couple of other really interesting butters. In the first she suggests using leftover gravy from a roast. Heat it, strain it and whirl in food processor with the butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and somme parsley and:
"you have created an exquisite compound butter, which will transform a cooked-in-a hurry piece of steak into something a little more special."
In similar style she makes a butter with leftover bits of red wine from a party. Reduce the wine by half, with half a chopped small onion, a sprig of thyme and a scrap of bayleaf. Strain and whiz with butter, parsley and chopped garlic. Might try that one next time we have a bit of leftover wine.
However, I won't be trying the butter made with the uncooked matter from a crayfish's head! Ugh! I also won't be freezing slices of bone marrow. But if I didn't have a husband who hated shellfish I might have a go at cooking the pounded shells with some unsalted butter, brandy and a bouquet garni before straining, shaping and freezing.
So what else? Well the Tomato soup with basil and croutons, is made almost entirely with frozen ingredients. Actually the recipe you will find if you click the link is a later version without the frozen element, and also without the the dollop of basil butter that the original has. The original also uses frozen stock - which interestingly she doesn't thaw before adding to the reduced tomatoes. Now although her original recipe says you can use sliced ripe tomatoes, she really is trying to demonstrate how you can freeze and then use frozen tomatoes. The tomatoes are tipped into shallow trays in the freezer. They collapse on thawing but make really good soup. And sauces too I imagine.
And last but not least croutons - if you have lots of stale bread make some croutons and freeze them. The revised recipe makes freshly toasted croutons, but the original makes use of frozen ones.
The rest of her menu uses the frozen marrow for the steak, and some of that frozen reduced stock in the sauce.
The pudding is Lemon Delicious Pudding which she claims is by far and away the most popular recipe on her website. That version does not use frozen things, but here in Menu's for Foodlovers she uses frozen lemon juice which has, as she says, a thousand and one uses. She even mentions one of my favourite French drinks - citron pressé which consists of lemon juice, a little sugar, ice cubes and water and is immensely refreshing on a hot day.
Interesting stuff on the use of the freezer. I didn't mention all the baked goods, tart shells, cream, ricotta and yoghurt that she has in there. One thing I'm sure of. It would all have been very organised and scrupulously labelled. Not like my higgledy piggledy shambles of a freezer. But then I'm not serving 100 people with haute cuisine food every night. Incredible that I once, very briefly, entertained the thought of cooking as some kind of career at one time in my life.
Menus for Food Lovers. I think she means dedicated high-end cooks really. Not your average food lover. Although that said, my chosen menu was indeed pretty simple to make. I guess you didn't have to be quite as fussy with the sieving and straining.