A week or so back, the papers announced the death of cooking for friends, be it a full-on dinner party or nibbles for a booze-fest. Apparently, we've all turned into lazy sods who'd rather serve up a takeaway or supermarket ready meal than mess up the kitchen with some home cooking.
"It's a real shame, isn't it?" says Polly Gold in her south London flat. "I can still remember the excitement whenever my parents were having friends round for a bite to eat. They really enjoyed preparing something special, even though it involved a lot of effort. Mind you, I was only a nipper at the time, so was never allowed to stay up late enough to join in. I got the leftovers for lunch the next day, which isn't quite the same thing."
Polly didn't write to the Kitchen Doctor out of pure nostalgia, however. She was planning a get-together of her own, and couldn't bear the thought of not even trying to make the food herself: "It's cheating otherwise. I mean, what's the point of asking people round, then giving them something they could buy themselves and whack in the microwave at home? Most of that stuff tastes of plastic, anyway - and as for that godawful smell that comes out of those bags of prepared salad when you open them..."
My sentiments entirely, thought Rosie Sykes, and headed off to Clapham to help Polly out.
Potato scones with smoked salmon and crème fraîche
Polly wanted a starter that everyone could eat with their hands, and I thought these would be ideal 'pop-it-in-in-one' mouthfuls. There was one vegetarian coming to the party, so we simply omitted the salmon from a few of the scones, so he wouldn't feel left out. You can cut the scones in half, if you wish, but it's rather unnecessary, not least because I reckon they look nicer kept whole. These quantities will make at least 30 small scones.
450g floury potatoes (King Edwards work particularly well here)
15g butter, cut into cubes
100g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tbsp capers, roughly chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes, cut them into even-sized chunks and cook in salted, boiling water until tender. Drain, then mash, adding cubes of butter as you do so. When smooth, break the egg on to the spuds and beat in with a wooden spoon. Season to taste. Preheat the oven to 175C/350F/gas mark 4, and leave the mixture to cool.
When the mash is cool, start adding the flour bit by bit until you have a smooth, malleable dough - you may not need all the flour, but the potatoes should take more than half of it. Stir the capers and spring onions into the dough, until well incorporated, then turn out on to a clean surface dusted with flour. Roll out to about 1cm thick, then, with a sharp knife, cut into mouthful-sized squares, triangles or rounds. Place on a buttered baking tray, and bake for 25 minutes, or until they are crisp on the bottom and slightly golden. I prefer these warm, so cook them in advance and reheat just before serving.
To serve, top each scone with a slice of smoked salmon, a blob of crème fraîche and a few chives (or, if you're feeling decadent, a spot of caviar or other fish roe).
Chicken liver pilaff
Polly spent part of her childhood in Turkey, which gave me the idea for doing some sort of rice dish; I've adapted the recipe from one that my sister used to cook me.
I forgot to buy allspice, but thankfully Polly had some. When I asked what she used it for, she blushed and said, 'Oh, I haven't yet. I bought it because it sounded useful. You know, all the spices mixed together.' This made me chuckle, but you could excuse her misconception: it's a bit of a silly name for something famed for being reminiscent of just three: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Whatever, it goes brilliantly with chicken liver. These quantities will serve four as a main course.
500g rice (that's about two teacupfuls)
300g chicken livers, cleaned and cut into even-sized pieces
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 medium onion , finely sliced
2 fat cloves garlic, crushed
30g pinenuts, toasted
300g baby spinach, washed
225g frozen petit pois
6 spring onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp each fresh coriander and flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
Place the rice in a fine sieve, and give it a rinse under the cold tap, to get rid of any starchy dust (if you don't pre-wash it, the rice won't fluff up so well at the end). Melt all but a couple of tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy-based pan, then add the onion and two-thirds of the garlic. Stir to coat with butter, cover and sweat for 10 minutes. Marinade the livers in a couple of pinches each of cinnamon and allspice, the rest of the garlic and the chilli.
Take the lid off the onion pan, add the rest of the cinnamon and allspice, and cook until the onion turns golden. Add the rice, and stir well so that every grain gets a coating of the buttery juices. Add an equal volume of water to the rice (ie, about two teacupfuls), season lightly, stir again, and bring to the boil. Cover the pan, turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is cooked through.
Just before the rice cooking time is up (say, after 12 minutes), melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and quickly fry the livers until they are browned all over. Once nicely brown, lift them out with a slotted spoon and set aside in a warm place. In the same pan, cook the peas and spinach until the latter has wilted down. Stir these into the rice, then mix in the coriander, parsley, pinenuts and spring onions, season again, and add the livers. Serve at once.
Blood orange jelly with physalis
Polly was chuffed when I suggested making a jelly: like many of us, she loved it as a kid, but hasn't eaten any in years. This was the first job we did, and Polly managed to splatter her kitchen with the blood orange juice so that it looked like an axe murderer had been round. Physalis, or Cape gooseberry, works fabulously in jellies because the seeds add a lovely crunch to the jelly texture - you can buy them in bigger supermarkets, but don't worry if you can't get any: just buy a few more oranges, remove the zest and pith, cut into segments, and use these instead. Serves six.
10-18 blood oranges (depending on size and juiciness: you want 700ml juice in all). Also, zest two before squeezing
4 tbsp gin
100g caster sugar
5 sheets leaf gelatine (or 1 packets of the powdered stuff)
250g physalis, taken out of their little papery shells and cut in half
First, make a syrup. Put the water, sugar and orange zest in a small pan, and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Swirl it around to encourage it. Once melted, raise the heat and boil the syrup for a couple of minutes.
Strain into a jug, reserving the zest, and measure out four tablespoons of syrup and put in another pan. Add the orange juice and zest, bring to the boil, remove from the heat and add the gelatine (if using leaf gelatine, soak in water for a few minutes, then squeeze out before adding to the pan; powder, you can tip in as it is). Stir until the gelatine is dissolved, then pass through a fine sieve. Add the gin.
Half-fill six glasses with the jelly mix, and divide half the physalis among them. Refrigerate until set, then add the rest of the jelly mix and physalis. Serve with double cream and the following biscuits.
Orange flower ladies' fingers
Polly didn't have a piping bag, so I had to improvise by cutting off one corner of a freezer bag. It was pretty successful considering, but Polly got all cheeky and said that lots of them looked more like labourers' fingers. These go wonderfully with the jelly, but are good on their own, too, with a nice cup of tea.
3 large eggs, separated
70g caster sugar
1 tbsp orange flower water
40g plain flour
Icing sugar to dust
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then add the sugar bit by bit, whisking all the while. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg yolks and orange flower water, then fold this mix into the whites. Fold in the flours, then pipe the mixture on to baking trays lined with parchment paper. Dust with a little icing sugar, and cook until they spring back to the touch. Remove from the oven, and cool on a wire rack
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