When photographer Jason Lowe schleps over from his Islington heights to our more genteel, lowland West Ken, winking his lens over my culinary efforts, I often find myself in the dubious situation of not having the slightest clue what to cook. I have the ingredients all right, but matching them up, twiddling them about, making them behave how I would like, that's another matter.
The picture here, of a spinach mousse baked in a double-size-foil-take- away carton (if you are a regular reader, you will already know how useful these throw-away containers can be) was just one of those dishes that doesn't have any particular reason for being made. The ingredients were just like questions on an exam paper. The spinach had looked good in Michanicou Brothers - one of only a very few proper greengrocers left in the metropolis and, happily for me, a 15-minute walk away in Holland Park, 2 Clarendon Road, W11 (0171-727 5191). I also happened to have some excellent Paxton and Whitfield smoked streaky bacon in the fridge. Grain mustard seemed suitable for the preparation that was hatching in my head, even though I usually prefer smooth, yellow Dijon.
That is really all it takes: adding your favourite things to ingredients you know like each other a lot. As Saeed Jaffrey succinctly put it in My Beautiful Launderette, when convinced his nephew should get together with the girl: "They go together like dal and chapati!"
These days, it seems "family suppers" only ever consist of pasta or the boring, ubiquitous stir-fry. And, by the way, whoever said you could use a wok effectively in the domain of a domestic kitchen has, for far too long, been having a lot of people on. There are some woks made with flattened bottoms, for use on a flat electric stove. Give me a break! I have even seen grown-up, sensible people try and use these pointless things.
I was forced into using an electric wok while staying in a rented house recently. It was perfect for risotto, a damn fine deep-fryer, ideal for slow-simmering a chicken stock, excellent for making soup, and easily cleaned by boiling water and Fairy together and wiping out with a cloth. Fantastic, actually. Just don't try making a Chinese stir-fry in it. When you come to lifting the thing up (because it's sort of heavy and you need both hands as it has two handles) and tossing the food around in an agitated manner, the plug leaps out of the wall socket and all the lights in the house go out.
But all that is by the way. What is of prime importance is to feed family and friends something nice and nourishing, interesting but easily put together. Not necessarily a meal in minutes (Oh dear, Ainsley, what are you doing?). Surely even those with a busy lifestyle would choose to make something delicious and elegant, enjoyable to make and eat, rather than flinging a stupid wok around the kitchen, or, once more, draining yet another pan of that interminable and frivolous fusilli - you know, the one that resembled Bonnie Langford's hair in Just William.
The following two recipes are not difficult to make, do not require outlandish ingredients, nor can they be made quickly or in a slapdash manner. What they will give you, however, is the satisfaction of a dish well made, a pleasing time in your own kitchen and something nice for dinner. Just remember to make sure you are hungry, too.
Hot spinach pate with mustard, serves 4
I'm almost tempted to call this a spinach "shape" - for those that can remember such things.
For the pate:
a little softened butter
275-300g fresh leaf spinach, trimmed of stalk and the bigger ribs and very well washed
salt, pepper and nutmeg
250ml double cream
8-12 rashers of streaky bacon, smoked or unsmoked
1 tbsp grain mustard
squeeze of lemon juice
Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Briefly boil the spinach in a large quantity of salted water - for about 1 minute, once the water starts to roll once more. Drain into a colander placed in the sink. Immediately start to run the cold tap over it, turning the spinach over and over with your hands until all of it feels completely cold. Now squeeze the water out of the leaves, mulching them together until as dry as possible. There should be about 100g weight of cooked spinach by now, or thereabouts.
Tip into a food-processor and add the eggs and seasonings. Process until a coarse puree is achieved. Tip in the cream and switch on once more until well mixed, but only for about 20 seconds or the cream will curdle. Pour into the take-away carton, previously well buttered. Wrap the top of the carton with a small sheet of buttered foil and place into a deep roasting tin. Fill with hot water from the tap, reaching at least three-quarters of the way up the sides of the carton.
Put into the oven and bake for around 40 minutes, or until the surface of the pate is firm to the touch and slightly risen. Remove from the oven but leave the pate in the water to keep hot and settle, while you cook the bacon. Fry this gently in a large frying pan until crisp. Remove and put on to four hot plates. Add the 25g of butter to the bacon fat and heat until frothing. Stir in the mustard - which will pop a bit - and squeeze in a little lemon juice. Spoon over the pate and eat with a good baguette. If you wanted some more food on your plate, add some nicely grilled tomatoes, cooked till blistered and puffed.
Braised lamb neck with vegetables and steamed potatoes, serves 4
I suppose that some of you might think this is nothing more than a deconstructed Irish stew. Well, you might possibly be bang on there. Either way, I really, really love this sort of thing.
There will those who will not readily welcome the initial smell of lamb simmering in water; it is not, I grant you, the most alluring of kitchen scents. However, this soon dissipates once it goes into the oven and will later begin to exude the most gorgeous smell, once the vegetables are added and the meat starts to become tender and fragile. Do not be tempted to add further embellishment to the dish, for the beauty lies in its simple purity.
1 kg lamb neck (about 5 pieces, cut by the butcher)
1 litre cold water
112 tsp salt
200g carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
250g hard white cabbage, cored and cut into small pieces
375g onions, peeled and quartered, then sliced
2 bay leaves
1 level dsp flour
softened butter or dripping
8-12 medium sized floury potatoes, peeled and left whole
freshly ground white pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1. Put the lamb into a solid pot (preferably one that has a lid) and pour over the water. Gently bring up to a simmer and remove the scum - of which there will be plenty - with spoon and/or kitchen paper laid upon the surface.
Make sure the water is merely bubbling, add the salt and put on the lid. Cook in the oven for one hour.
Remove the pot and add the vegetables and bay, stirring them in carefully until well submerged into the broth. Sprinkle the surface with the flour. Now take a sheet of grease-proof paper and fold into a quarter of its size. Using a pair of scissors, cut this folded rectangle into a quarter circle shape, so that when it is opened, it has become a rough circle. While it is still folded, also snip along the recently cut edges to a depth of about 3cm, and the same distance apart. Unfold, spread liberally with butter or dripping, and press over the surface of the meat and vegetables; as the fat melts, it will mingle with the flour, providing an unobtrusive thickener. Good eh? Put the lid on and cook in the oven for another hour. Steam the potatoes during this time, until tender (if you boil them they tend to break up - rather, bake them and scoop out if you don't have a steamer).
Carefully remove the lamb from the pot and put on to a plate. Remove smallish chunks of meat from the bone using a knife and fork and return to the pot. Stir in plenty of freshly ground white pepper and the parsley. Put the potatoes into hot shallow soup plates and spoon the sloppy lamb stew over. Three-star food this