‘Toast’, the story of a boy’s hunger, by Nigel Slater has to be one of the most endearing, nostalgic and moving books ever written about a boy’s experience of ‘everything edible’ in the 1960’s. Nigel’s book is divided into no less than 69 chapters, each focusing on a food horror or delight. Fairy drops, peach melba, grilled grapefruit, butterscotch Angel Delight, Cadbury’s Smash, sherbert fountains, pickled walnuts, tinned ham and so on.
Incredibly descriptive memories, some that prick the eye, make you shudder or laugh out loud. An excellent read, but an even better audio-book narrated by Nigel himseIf. I listen to this whilst travelling. Driving up and down the motorway or on those monotonous train journeys when the only food experiences that come my way are buffet trolley sandwiches and Ginsters pork-pies.
I was therefore rather disappointed with Lee Hall’s adaptation of the book for the BBC, broadcast over Christmas. Although a brilliant cast, specifically Helena Bonham Carter as Joan, (the voluptuous cleaner and soon to become step mother to Nigel, with such a passion for baking and ‘feeding’ people, that it eventually killed his father,) but this just didn’t hit the mark for me. I did not feel we got the same musings on food, its texture, feel, taste and smell as you do in the vivid writings of Nigel Slater. And what makes me anxious is that you may hold back from reading the book, thinking that that’s all it offers. I urge you to read it, or download the audio-book. Listen out for the Walnut Whip episodes and the moment of ‘being found out’ in the lay-by and that cringing embarrasment he relays, in front of his father.
Priceless. I have a number of Nigel Slater’s recipe books and his musings are as evocative in his recipe books as his autobiography. I turn to his writing for inspiration for this months recipe. A tart packed with flavour for lunch, supper, starter or nibble for a February party seems just the thing. It’s that time of year when the long hours of darkness can seem very bleak in terms of fruit and vegetables. So I look to the beautiful, deep purple rings of the red onion, mingled with crisp pastry, thyme and melting cheese; Gold Hill from Cranborne Chase (this is pricey but worth every penny in this dish), Taleggio, or any semi-soft cheese. A sharp goat’s cheese also works well against the sweetness of the onions.
Whilst this recipe calls for puff pastry (bought, naturally - you would have to be out of your mind to want to make your own), there is no reason why a homemade shortcrust in a tart case shouldn’t be perfect if you want a tidier, crispier base or more formal tart. You could also use these ingredients and method to make a red onion tarte-tatin by sealing the cooked onions (cut in half only, sliced side down) and sealing them in when cool with thick puff pastry and baking until golden; before carefully turning upside down on a platter and slicing in wedges. Great with a roast or cold meats or a meal on it’s own. aif
Red onion; thyme and Gold Hill cheese tart.
Serves 4 as a light lunch / supper or 6-8 as a starter
£8.00 when all ingredients purchased at Ludwell Stores.
(These quantities can easily be increased - e.g. when using a 500g pack of pastry)
6 Red (or white) small to medium onions, approx 800g in weight.
60g Butter - a thick slice will suffice
1tsp Soft light brown sugar
1tbls balsamic vinegar
375g Puff pastry - ready rolled is fine but rather thin
1 Gold Hill cheese - or 100g equivalent semi-soft or goat’s cheese
1 tbls Chopped fresh thyme or rosemary Ground black pepper
1. Peel the onions and cut them in half from stem to root, then into thick segments
2. Melt the butter in a large, shallow heavy based pan and add the onions
3. Cook over a low heat (they must not fry or brown in any way) until translucent and sticky. Give them time, pointless to hurry as this is a slow, gentle process, approx 30 minutes depending on the wateriness of the onions
4. Add the sugar, black pepper and balsamic vinegar, stirring frequently until all the liquid evaporates. Put aside to cool slightly. Preheat oven to 220°C / Gas mark 7 / AGA grid shelf on the lowest set of runners of the top oven.
5. Roll out your pastry on a lightly floured cold surface to no thicker than a 50p piece. At this point you can sprinkle some thyme or rosemary onto the pastry and give a last gentle roll, so the herb is embedded into the pastry (great tip for short crust too, home or ready made). Transfer to a large floured baking sheet.
6. Using a blunt knife, score a border of about 2 cm in from each edge and prick all over with a fork. Chill the pastry at this stage, until you are fifteen or so minutes away from eating.
7. Tip the onions onto the pastry, pushing them almost to the scored edge.
8. Brush the rim with some of the buttery juice or a little oil.
9. Slice the cheese, then break into small pieces and tuck them in amongst the onions. Scatter over the remaining thyme or rosemary
10. Bake until the pastry is golden and puffed up and the cheese and onion begins to brown - Keep an eye on this, may only take 15 - 20 minutes
Serve with a pile of wilted spinach or steamed curly kale, splashed with fresh lemon juice and sprinkled with roasted pine nuts. Alternatively serve with a mixed salad and jugs of cold cider in the summer.
Alternatives for toppings: use leeks rather than onions; mushrooms; tomato and basil; pancetta and parmessan or add some shredded chard to the onion mix at the last moment. A truly, truly scrumptious dish.
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.