I identified three items in my kitchen that I had to use up fairly quickly, before they reached the end of their gastronomic life.
There was a pineapple, bought when under-ripe, which was by now verging on the overblown. Some of its natural sweetness had come and gone, but it was perfectly edible.
A Savoy cabbage, though not quite so far along the road to ruin, was not going to hold out indefinitely. Excessive waste is, to some extent, an unfortunate by-product of a cookery writer's work, but I have a particularly soft spot for the dark crinkled leaves of the Savoy, and I was loath to see it disappear, rank with old age, into the bin. Without doubt it had to play a role, and my half-sister settled the matter, when she rang for a chat while cooking a favourite family version of stuffed cabbage.
I also happened to have the remains of a big chunk of salt cod. It keeps - that is the whole point of it - but it was cluttering up the kitchen table and, despite layers of clingfilm and plastic bags, it still emitted a mild odour. We were used to it, but I had noticed the twitching noses of some worried visitors.
Eggs, olive oil and butter I had a-plenty, which meant that a blissfully brief trip to the supermarket was all that was required to provide for an excellent French family lunch or supper, more than just an everyday meal but nothing too fancy or elaborate.
To begin, brandade de morue (puree of salt cod), followed by the easiest and best of stuffed cabbages, a salad and some cheese perhaps, then the crowning glory, a flan des les, baked pineapple custard.
Most of the work can be done in advance (always a boon). Since salt cod is not everyone's tasse de the, I suggest as an alternative something as deliciously simple as leeks vinaigrette - steamed or boiled leeks, thoroughly drained, turned in French dressing while still warm, then left to cool and sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg and parsley before serving.
Brandade de morue
This is a wonderful rich puree of salt cod, whipped up with loads of olive oil (it comes from the South of France). To make it by hand is a tedious, arm-wrenching business. A food processor does the job in minutes. The resulting smooth texture is less than ideal, but I still love it.
Buy salt cod from Italian or Spanish delicatessens, and try to get a piece cut from the thick, fleshy centre. You will also find it at West Indian food stores, ready cut and wrapped, but the quality is often not so good, and you have no say in the parts you are buying. The edges and 'shoulder' tend to be extremely gelatinous, and if you have to use just these, you may have to increase the amount of olive oil and milk and must, even so, expect a firmer puree.
Occasionally, brandade de morue can separate as you make it, though this is less likely in a processor. If it does, you can save the day by beating it into a little mashed potato. Leftover brandade will keep for several days, and is extremely good with poached eggs.
Ingredients: 1lb (450g) salt cod, soaked and drained
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
15fl oz (440ml) extra virgin olive oil
5fl oz (150ml) milk
Preparation: Soak the salt cod in cold water for a good 24 hours, changing the water at least three times. Drain and poach in fresh water for about 10 minutes until it just flakes (do not overdo it). Drain and discard skin and bones. Flake the fish and place in the processor, with the garlic. Put the oil and the milk into separate pans. Bring the milk up to the boil, and turn the heat down so that it remains hot. Heat the olive oil.
Set the processor running, and dribble in alternately a little oil and a little milk, continuing until both are used up and you have a light, fluffy puree. Taste and add salt if necessary. Serve warm or cold, with triangles of toast.
Stuffed cabbage, Troo style
This is how our neighbour in France used to make stuffed cabbage. Mme Glon had a huge number of children and grandchildren who would regularly congregate for lunch around the trestle tables in her front garden.
Instead of stuffing and remoulding individual cabbage leaves, she just layered cabbage and sausagemeat (which must be of good quality), and left it to cook gently for several hours.
Ingredients: 3-4 1/2 lb (1 1/2 -2kg) Savoy cabbage
1 1/2 lb (675g) good quality sausagemeat or sausages
salt and pepper
Preparation: Slice the cabbage and drop into a pan of boiling salted water. Bring back to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Rinse under the cold tap and drain thoroughly. Skin sausages if using them. Butter an ovenproof casserole generously and pack in one-third of the cabbage. Top with half the sausagemeat, spreading it out roughly.
Season with salt and pepper and dot with a little butter. Repeat with two more layers, finally covering with the last of the cabbage.
Season again, dot generously with butter, and cover tightly. Bake at 150C/300F/gas 2 for 2 1/2 hours.
Flan des les
(baked pineapple custard)
This is my version of a flan des les. It began as an adaptation of the recipe given in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck, but has moved on a fair distance. I use fresh pineapple, and have cranked up the 'island' flavour by adding orange juice and cinnamon. It may look complicated, but it is not. Make it a day ahead, but do not turn it out of its mould until you are ready to eat.
Ingredients: 1 medium-sized
juice of 2 oranges
6oz (170g) caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 oz (15g) flour
2tbs lemon juice
For the mould:
3oz (85g) caster sugar
Preparation: Warm a 2 1/2 -3 pint (1 1/2 litre) shallow round mould in the oven. (I use a souffle dish, but a cake tin would do just as well.)
While it is warming, put the 3oz sugar and water in a heavy pan and stir over a low-to-medium heat until completely dissolved, without letting it boil. Dip a brush into cold water and brush down any crystals that cling to the sides. Stop stirring and bring to the boil. Boil until the syrup caramelises to a rich brown, swirling the pan occasionally. Immediately pour into the warmed mould. Tip and tilt until the base is covered. Set aside until needed.
Peel, core, slice and then chop the pineapple, saving any juice. Make the orange juice up to 15fl oz (440ml) with water and tip into a pan with the 6oz sugar. Stir until dissolved, add the cinnamon and bring to the boil. Add the pineapple and its juice and simmer for 10 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick.
While the pineapple is cooking, beat the flour with the lemon juice until smooth, then beat in the rum and the eggs. Still beating constantly, gradually add the hot pineapple syrup with the chopped pineapple bits. When it is all evenly mixed, pour into the mould.
Stand the mould in a roasting tin, and surround it with enough boiling water to come about halfway up the sides. Bake at 150C/300F/gas 2 for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, until the custard is just set. Cool, then chill for at least 4 hours - overnight is better. Just before serving, run the blade of a narrow knife around the edge, then carefully invert on to a serving dish.Reuse content