Food: For all seasons

To write a cookery book that is still in use 30 years on is a rare achievement. Simon Hopkinson celebrates the life of Margaret Costa, who died last month
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Indy Lifestyle Online
round the middle of August we lost two extraordinary cooks in the space of two days. I feel it is wholly correct to describe the late Margaret Costa and Richard Olney as cooks rather then cookery writers, because although each - in their own inimitable way - demonstrated the greatest of ease with words, and communicated the pleasure of cooking a good recipe with rare expertise, this would not have been possible unless both were passionate, experienced and talented cooks. Margaret Costa hung up her apron first, so it is her way with a certain British style of cooking that I wish to celebrate this week.

Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book was first published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in 1970, when I was 16 years old. Two years later I was to give my late mother a copy of the paperback edition for her birthday. It remains on the bookshelf in Dad's kitchen, battered and well thumbed; a real cookery book written without the need of televisual aid. It was also absolutely true to its title, yet her sub-headings within each of the four seasonal chapters are described with unique whimsy: "Chicken, Duck and a Small Turkey"; "Salt, Pepper and Mustard"; "Awful Offal"; "Comforting Breakfasts".

Apart from seasonal reference, her book is filled to bursting with quite blindingly obvious reasons as to why it is sensible - as well as enjoyable - to eat good things. Indeed, encouraging good eating is the sole reason any naturally inspired cookery writer puts words and recipes together. You may think that is such an obvious thing to say, but I do worry about how many recent volumes sit on kitchen shelves, un-scuffed, stiff of spine - perhaps never even opened. Ultimately, I don't think there is one recipe in Four Seasons that I would not want to eat.

It should be noted, however, that the Margaret Costa who wrote one of the most important cookery books in the English language also wore another hat, in her role as restaurateur, with her husband, the chef Bill Lacy.

Now, it must have been a close-run thing between the publication of The Four Seasons Cookery Book and the opening of Lacy's Restaurant (26 Whitfield Street, just off Tottenham Court Road), because Lacy's is listed as a new restaurant in the 1971 Good Food Guide - for which Margaret Costa was a contributor. This probational review took up an unprecedented whole page, so revolutionary was the concept, cooking and - some might have said at the time - the very conceit of the place. The coherence, however, of this brave couple's vision soon confounded all sceptics, with Lacy's remaining one of the capital's busiest and most interesting restaurants, until it closed in the early Eighties.

Never before or since (without the aid of inert gas) has anyone presented an entire list with the instruction that you may drink as much or as little of the wine chosen as you wish, and pay accordingly. But the idea certainly appealed to me the first time I ate lunch there, in 1974: chilled avocado soup; crepe aux fruits de mer; Lacy's hot fruit brulee. Much wine. I never forget a great meal.

However, Margaret Costa's culinary scribblings and forthright views on food had been honed and perfected well before the publication of Four Seasons. Her Good Food Guide associations apart, a weekly cookery column in The Sunday Times Magazine had been hers for some time, as was a regular contribution to the (fabled) Illustrated London News. She was also a consultant to the original USA Time-Life Foods of the World cookery series (along with luminaries such as Craig Claibourne, James Beard and George Lang). As is the weird way of the world we live in, it was later to be one Richard Olney who would become the consultant to a brand new Time-Life series of books published ten years later (1981): The Good Cook.

I only met Margaret Costa the one time, which was as an Egon Ronay inspector in the early Eighties. After I had revealed myself (the inspector's parlance for handing over the ER business card and requesting a chat), I immediately poured her a glass of red from the remains of our bottle, and a vibrant conversation ensued. She still showed bursts of enthusiasm for the madness that is restauration, but I recall a faintness of heart too; perhaps it was a premonition that the sort of restaurant that she and her husband had created - innovative yet genuine, a bit mad but also caring, generous and spirited - was soon to become a rarity. Above all, Margaret Costa and Bill Lacy were true hosts. The description "table d'hote" never had more meaning - certainly in this country - than it did at 26 Whitfield Street.

Here are three recipes from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book. I have chosen them for their simplicity, for the way they demonstrate the traditional ways of the naturally good cook and, of course, because they taste really good.

Next week's column will be devoted to the late chef Richard Olney

Lemon surprise pudding

Serves 2 greedy people

This is one of those fabulous little English puddings that nobody does better. That being said, I have seen it served up in Sydney, New York and Hong Kong. Egad! Almost a "label" in the nursery pudding stakes.

Note: from time to time I have made this pudding in a bain-marie, and have noticed that the separation of sponge and creamy lemon sauce can often be achieved more successfully. It is not the original method, but it makes perfect sense. If you decide on this route, use cold water for the bain-marie and cook the pudding for a little longer.

50g butter

grated rind and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon

90g caster sugar

2 eggs, separated

1 rounded tbsp plain flour, sifted

250ml full-cream milk - "breakfast milk" from the supermarket is ideal

a little extra softened butter

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Cream the butter with the grated lemon rind and 50g of the sugar. When it is fluffy, beat in the yolks from the separated eggs. Then stir in the sifted flour, alternately with the milk. Add the juice of the lemon. Beat the 2 egg whites lightly, beat in the remaining 40g of sugar and fold into the mixture. Spoon into a lightly buttered, ovenproof dish. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pudding is a pale golden brown. Underneath the sponge topping there will be a creamy lemon sauce - this is the charming little surprise. Eat with very cold pouring cream.

Creamed prawns

Serves 2

Why are we not making something so neat, delicious and tempting as this savoury way with prawns today? Does it seem a little old hat? Is it just too simple for the extra virgin olive oil, balsamico and lemon grass classes? Perhaps it is the rich creaminess of the assembly which puts people off. Well, I couldn't give a damn, really, as it now seems that it is the most obvious dishes that are becoming least practised, while complicated, esoteric preparations are beginning to be the ruination of a perfectly capable, British domestic scene.

Note: Margaret Costa suggests serving the prawns with rice. Nice as this may be, I prefer something like this served on toast, or, even better, fried bread.

25g butter

300g cooked whole prawns in the shell (these are readily available from most fishmongers and simply need shelling: they have previously been frozen, but their quality is really quite good)

1tbsp Cognac

a little salt, pepper and a scrape of nutmeg

a squeeze of lemon juice

150ml double cream

Heat the butter and turn the prawns through it quickly, for a minute or so. Add the Cognac and light it with a match, shaking the pan until the flames die down. Immediately remove the prawns with a slotted spoon to a plate. To the residue add the seasonings (careful with the salt) and reduce until turning syrupy. Pour in the cream, whisk together and simmer until starting to thicken nicely. Sharpen with lemon juice and re-introduce the prawns. Heat through and spoon over two thick slices of toast or fried bread. A more perfect Sunday supper for two I cannot think of.

Liver with Dubonnet and orange

Serves 2

Along with the lemon pudding, liver with Dubonnet and orange is a classic Costa dish, for me. Over the years (25 at least) I have cooked these again and again, with enormous pleasure and smiles from those who have eaten them. "Cooking with Dubonnet!?" Some cynics might scoff, but it works a treat here: just the right mix of sweetness, fragrance and fruity alcohol to match the richness of the liver. A treat.

1/2tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove peeled garlic, finely chopped

400g lamb's or calf's liver, thickly sliced

salt and pepper

flour

1tbsp fresh orange juice

5tbsp Dubonnet

1tbsp chopped parsley

grated rind of 1/2 an orange and 1/2 a small lemon

rashers of back bacon (optional)

Heat the olive oil and butter together in a large frying pan. In these fats gently fry the onions and garlic together until softened and lightly coloured. Season the liver and dust with flour. In one layer, lay the slices of liver over the bed of onions and garlic, and continue to cook on a very moderate heat until you see the blood rise in tiny drops on the surface of the meat. Turn the slices over and cook for only a few seconds more. Remove the liver to a serving dish and cover with the onion/garlic mixture, fetched from the pan with a slotted spoon. Wrap the dish in foil and keep warm.

Now add the orange juice and the Dubonnet to the crusted juices left in the pan, scraping them up with a small whisk to disperse them well. Bring to the boil for a couple of minutes until the sauce has reduced by almost half. Turn off the heat, add the parsley, orange and lemon rinds and give it a final stir (you may keep a little parsley and orange rind back to sprinkle over the finished dish, if you like). Pour over the liver and serve with (or without - it tastes delicious either way) grilled bacon rashers and buttery mashed potatoes. n

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