If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. — JRR Tolkien
I have to confess that I find this time of year torturous; taunted by a day of brilliant sunshine and all the signs of spring only to be plunged back into winter proper. It’s grim out there today, again. And I read (though am choosing not to believe) that winter is not over with us at all yet and March is going to be anything but balmy.
So what to do, when faced with the prospect of another cold and rainy weekend? Only one thing – and it’s the same one that I have been doing all winter but the only one that hasn’t yet lost its lustre- and that is to hunker down, and feast. If it sounds as though I am advocating comfort eating, then I am. But it’s more than that. I am talking the whole cannon of food- the reading about it, the cooking it, the feasting on it, the gathering friends over it. It is one of the great plusses of the modern age, that food and everything spawned from it has become such a pleasure, a virtual art form. We don’t exactly live to eat, but we are doing a lot more than eating to live.Cookery books themselves have become like veritable works of art and markets and farmers markets and specialist food shops have sprung up out around every corner- and if you really do live in the middle of nowhere then there is (dare I say it…in a whisper maybe) that the internet can get you the ingredients for an Ottelenghi special practically overnight.
I am not always in the mood to cook- and when my kids were very little it was literally the last thing on my mind. The fact that you never actually get to eat a hot meal for the first few months and the prospect of cooking it one handed – like some sort of circus act – is enough to put off even the most avid culinary expert. (But for you there are the cookery programmes – all now on tv catch up- which you can breastfeed in front of. So even you don’t have to miss out entirely on this food- fest that I am advocating.)
The truth is, there is the possibility of whiling away hours and hours, no even days, of dreadful weather with food. When I was young I used to find my mum, propped up on three pillows in bed, voraciously reading a cookbook as though it was an un-put-down-able novel. It used to seem strange to me. I think I might even have laughed at her. Fast-forward thirty years, and that is me (yes its true, there’s no escape, we will become them). I confess to liking nothing more than to trudge from my larder, arms laden with books, only to sit by a fire (or propped up in bed with three pillows) dip into them all, ripping out stubs of magazine pages to mark the recipes I will probably never get round to but love the look of.
(Obviously this particular activity can only take place when your children are otherwise engaged i.e happily ensconsed with a film. BTW- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is especially good because it’s over two and a half hours long. You could even suggest they watch it twice.)
And then there is the feasting and merriment that comes with having friends around. As that can sometimes be stressful to prepare for, the (rare) joy of winter is that it suits one pot wonders; tagines, curries, slow cooked beef stews or the ‘prepare in advance and then chill out on the day/night’ dishes like lasagnes and fish pies. And did you know, that that lovely uplifted feeling you get from being around a table with friends is not just the wine talking. Studies have shown that our oxytocin levels actually go up when people are around a table and eating together (oxytocin is the ‘love hormone’, the same one that is produced having sex, and apparently – I recently heard- when eating dates?!), so whats not to like about that.
Best of all, children seem to all really love cooking. Two year olds can mix cake batter, three year olds can crack eggs. And then twelve year olds can do a five course meal on their own if you’ve start them young enough! So when you are fresh out of ideas for indoor play that does not involve a screen – which quite frankly by this stage I am: how much drawing and Uno and ‘shithead’ can one stomach?- then head for the kitchen.
And if the prospect of a family cook-in this weekend tickles your tastebuds, then I have the ultimate recipe- chocolate orange and beetroot brownies. Cosmo and I have made three batches in as many weeks and as yet we have suffered absolutely no diminishing marginal returns. They are just as good third time round as they were first, and I defy you to eat just one. I only stop at three because I know I should.
The recipe is care of Kitchen & Co By French and Grace, which has been my bible this winter – and has gone straight in at number one in my ‘top five recipe books of all time’ list. Desert Island stuff it is, and if you haven’t got it I would recommend buying a copy (Amazons sells them here but even better hot foot it down to your local book store and ask them to order you one in- its often as quick- and that way we keep those little treasure troves alive)
chocolate orange beetroot brownies
Makes 1 large tray
3 small uncooked beetroots
250g dark chocolate (minm 70% cocoa solids)
250g unsalted butter
250g caster sugar
3 free range eggs
zest of I orange and juice of half
160g self-raising flour
~Boil the beetroot for about half an hour until tender to the point of a knife ( I often do a massive batch and then use half for these brownies and the other half for a beetroot dip).
~Blitz the beetroot to a puree in a blender and set aside.
~Preheat the oven to 180 degrees/gas mark 4. Lightly butter and line a baking tin at least 2cm deep.
~Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Add the butter in cubes and leave to melt, stirring once or twice.
~In another bowl, whisk the sugar and the eggs until smooth and creamy. Stir in the melted choclate, orange zest and juice and then add the pureed beetroot. Sift in the flour and then stir until combined.
~Pour the mixture into a tin and bake for 15-20 minutes.
~Attempt to resist eating them all at once. Almost impossible.