I met Michael Watts, the winter veg man, in the pub the other morning. He asked what I was up to. "In for a pint, a packet of pork scratchings and a round of ham sandwiches," I said. "Ham sandwiches," he said. "Not good enough. Come for lunch." "But it's 12.30pm," I said. "Your wife won't welcome another mouth to feed at this hour." The Watts household is very traditional in its division of domestic labour.
"Nonsense," he said. "Tessa would be delighted."
"Well," I said, "if you're quite sure," and abandoned my dreams of ham sandwiches. It was just as well. There were no pork scratchings.
Tessa, as always, was welcoming in the face of the comings and goings in her kitchen. She apologised for lunch "not being very exciting". She was right. Lunch wasn't "very exciting". It was something much more valuable than that. It was comforting. It was filling and warming and satisfying and happy-making: baked beans with potatoes and cheese.
Think about it - the mealy sweetness of the beans; the floury, earthy beauty of potatoes; the rich, creamy, pungent cheese - see how they all work together? It's not cutting-edge cuisine, but in these days of kaffir lime leaves, argon oil and quick-fix recipes, there is something almost combative about such a combination.
Anyway, three helpings of the beans, potatoes and cheese got me thinking about the value of comfort food, food that doesn't challenge or preen or attempt to make fashion statements, but that speaks quietly and purposefully to the inner man and woman (and child). It was then that I realised I had unwittingly put together several such dishes over the past few months, and in each case there had not been a single scrap to be saved for the next day. All recipes serve four.
Baked beans with potatoes and cheese
Comfort food for all ages. Balance the dish with a side helping of braised leeks or cabbage.
800g potatoes (an all-rounder such as Maris Piper or Pentland Javelin)
2 x 400g tins baked beans
400g cheddar, Lancashire, Cheshire or other cheese with some character
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Boil the potatoes in their skins until cooked, drain and peel. Cut into small roast potato-size.
Open the tins of beans and pour into a baking dish. Arrange the spuds on top and season to taste. Grate the cheese and scatter on top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the top is a seething magma of molten cheese and the beans are bubbling.
This recipe has its origins in Christmas leftovers. There was some cold lamb, cold turkey and turkey stuffing, and some roast potatoes, and they all needed using up. Actually, some were all for throwing these bits and bobs away, but my thrifty spirit reacts violently against such profligacy. And it was a challenge to see what I could do with them. I called this dish a hash, but I'm not sure whether it is one, technically speaking. But, with a fried egg on top, it had that sweetly meaty, mulchy moistness that means hash to me. The secret of a good hash, I think, lies in the amount of onion you use. I like lots.
2 tbsp vegetable oil (or, better still, dripping)
4 large onions, roughly chopped
About 300g boiled or roast potatoes
About 400g cooked leftovers (lamb, beef, pork, ham, turkey, chicken, duck, goose, stuffing, anything)
About 125ml stock or jellified scrapings from the bottom of roasting pans
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil or dripping in a large frying pan, and fry the onion until soft and translucent. Roughly crush the potatoes in whatever form you want them, and chop the meat into whatever- sized bits take your fancy - I like to shred mine with the tines of a fork.
Add the potatoes and meat to the onions, and mix well. Add the stock/ gravy scrapings and season. Fry gently for 15 minutes, then turn it inside out and move it all about, as it were, and fry for 15 minutes longer. There is a school of thought that holds that you can bake a hash for 20 minutes at 170C/325F/gas mark 3, but I am not of that school. Serve with a fried egg.
I was making a TV series called The Forager's Field Guide, a classic of its kind, though you may have missed it because it was shown only on ITV West. This is a recipe that I came up with for one of the programmes and I subsequently tried it out on my family, with some success, I like to think. It combines the visual panache of a Swiss roll, the fleshy, slippery textures of cooked mushrooms and the generous flavours of marsala, cheese and the funghi themselves. Use whatever mushrooms you can find, though wild ones are better than the bog- standard things you find in supermarkets and the few greengrocers we have left, because they have more flavour. You will need to make two strudels to feed four people.
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
6 sheets filo pastry (shop-bought, of course)
1 egg, beaten
Roughly chop the mushrooms, but not too small - use at least 800g because they contain a lot of water and so reduce while cooking. Melt 50g of the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and garlic, and fry over a lowheat until all is soft and translucent.
Add the mushrooms, turning them over to make sure they're coated all over in butter.
Turn up the heat to high and fry rapidly until the mushrooms are just browned on the outside. Pour in the marsala and allow to boil away rapidly but not completely - you need, oh, around 60ml of liquid.
Add the Parmesan, followed by the flour, to thicken the sauce. Stir, turn down the heat and let it bubble away gently to cook the flour out and let the mixture thicken. Finally, stir in the chopped parsley. Set aside to cool - cold pastry and hot filling do not a happy marriage make.
While the mushroom mixture is cooling, prepare the filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Melt the remaining butter.
Unwrap the pastry. Place one sheet on a flat surface and brush all over with melted butter. Place a second sheet exactly on top of the first and brush with melted butter. Finish with a third sheet. Spread the mushroom mixture on the prepared filo, leaving a gap all around the edge. Starting at one end, roll up the filo like a Swiss roll, tucking in the ends so the mushroom juices don't leak out during cooking. Brush the outside of the parcel with beaten egg.
Make a second strudel in the same way and place both side by side on a baking tray. Bake for 15 minutes, until the outside is brown and crunchy. Serve hot or warm, perhaps with a crisp, green salad.