Food: Dinner to the rescue
Saturday 08 June 1996
One option is to roll up with the ingredients and cook them at the home of your friend; but negotiating someone else's kitchen is never straightforward. Life is easier all round if you arrive with a fait accompli that requires little more than heating through.
After the birth of a baby, mobility creeps back over a period of days. But in the short term there is a problem: you are hungry. Which is fine if your partner happens to be a fantastic cook, and not so great if he thinks daube is a smear of paint. I canvassed a few friends who have recently run the gauntlet, and found that there was a consensus craving for hearty meat and two veg. One new mother said the perfect meal would have been a chicken casserole with vegetables, to heat up at the same time as potatoes were baking. There is certainly something very nurturing about a soupy stew with steaming hot potatoes to mash into the juices, and casseroles as well as substantial soups such as minestrone have the advantage that they improve with keeping for a day or two in the fridge.
Such food extends beyond postnatal catering. Basically we are talking of food that travels. Other helpful suppers include pasta sauces: home- made pesto, a tomato sauce with olives and anchovies, or a creamy wild mushroom sauce - take the uncooked pasta round, too, and some French bread spread with herb butter to bung in the oven. A lasagne comes in the same mould. My own choice would be for spinach and ricotta, a deliciously slippery mass of spinach leaves, pasta and bechamel.
If you don't have time for any of this, I think one of the most useful presents for anybody housebound is smoked salmon, which will see them through endless delectable sandwiches and bagels, as well as scrambled eggs, or it can be eaten with an avocado salad or ratatouille. And it's the perfect answer to the question of what topeople dropping in unexpectedly.
In the case of a party, simply pretend you are a caterer. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes tend to be more practical than anything rich and French. I would also obey the Tupperware rule, choosing food that can be transported in a closed container, or a dish covered with cling film. And avoid elaborately assembled delicacies that will be damaged if you have to brake suddenly while driving. I recall a time when I had spent hours stuffing blanched spinach leaves: perfect oblong parcels laid out on trays in the boot of the car. Five minutes into the journey a car cut across me, I braked, and there was a multiple canape pile-up.
If it is an informal do for quite a lot of people, most likely it will be a "bring-a-salad" party: rice salads, and vegetables and pulse salads, travel well. Take the dressing separately. Roasted vegetable numbers do not seem to mind a certain amount of jostling.
Blessed are they that turn up with a pudding: a fruit tart dusted with icing sugar, a fudgy chocolate cake or a summer pudding that oozes magenta syrup, and if the weather's cool then tiramisu (at the risk of being passe), a boozy sherry trifle or a fruit fool. There are endless options and pudding can be a star turn.
White wine chicken casserole with Provencal herbs, serves 4
I like to serve this with baked or boiled potatoes, something to mash into the juices. It can be made in advance and will accommodate numbers if you want to cook it in quantity. You can assemble it in less than 30 minutes, then leave it to simmer.
15g/12 oz dried porcini mushrooms
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, peeled, halved and sliced
2 fennel bulbs
275g/10oz carrots, peeled, cut into 5cm/2in lengths
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1.4kg/3lb chicken pieces
plain flour, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper
570ml/1 pint white wine
3 bay leaves
5 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 x 7.5cm/3-in cinnamon stick
1 level tsp salt
Cover the dried porcini with boiling water and soak for 15 minutes. Heat half the olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onions over medium-low heat for 8-12 minutes, stirring regularly, until they are turning golden. Set aside in a bowl.
Remove the outer leaves and shoots from the fennel, halve them lengthwise and cut into segments so that they remain attached by the root. Halve any large carrot pieces lengthwise. Heat the remaining oil in the saucepan and sweat the fennel, carrots and garlic until, like the onions, they are turning golden. Keep to one side with the onions.
Turn the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and cook on both sides until nicely coloured: you will have to do this in two lots.
Return the chicken and vegetables to a clean pan. Pour in the white wine, add the porcini and soaking liquor, the herbs, cinnamon and seasoning, bring almost to a simmer, cover and cook over very gentle heat for an hour. Skim off any surface fat, strain the juices into another saucepan and cook uncovered until reduced by a third. Pour back over the chicken and vegetables and adjust seasoning
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