The general view was that it couldn't be done, that I couldn't get back from London by about 10.30am and have lunch on the table before 1 or 1.30. Pah! What nonsense! For how many? Well, there's three of us and four of them, and there might be another as well. Eight. Could be worse. And there weren't any special dietary requirements that I knew of. Or had been warned about. Actually, knowing John and Claudia, dietary oddities were not likely to be high on the agenda. On the other hand, our and their teenage children could cut up rough. On second thoughts, tough. They'd have to starve if they didn't like what I was going to cook, although I felt quietly confident.
But what was I going to cook? Nothing too fancy - time was in short supply. Nothing too creative, either, because if it didn't work out, we'd all have to go to the pub with my reputation at half-mast.
Anyway, it was just a family lunch, for heaven's sake.
Chicken's always a good stand-by. Nothing controversial about chicken, unless you happen to be vegetarian. Of course, it couldn't just be any old chicken dish. Reputation, expectation, pride and all that guff.
It's on occasions such as this that I go for the tried and trusted, those dishes you can rely on, that won't blow up in your face, that can sit around for a while without being ruined and that usually get the response, "Can you give me the recipe for this?" Oh yes, yes, yes.
Recipes serve four.
Spatchcocked chicken with shallot vinaigrette
Pierre Koffman, from whom this recipe was not so much nicked as borrowed, suggests in Memories Of Gascony - his golden evocation of his childhood and the food of his native region of France - grilling the chicken over wood embers. That's a very nice idea, and would work wonderfully well in Gascony in high summer. In England in high winter, however, with the rain slanting in from the west, the notion of a bit of alfresco barbecuing didn't have much appeal. The practical solution is to roast the chickens, which is what I did. The magic is in the shallots, which just slightly cook in the heat of the chicken, but retain their crunch and flavour to season the dish; and in the polite exchange of flavours between the chicken juices and the vinaigrette heavy with mustard. All this needs is a good, crunchy salad and springy bread. And, right on cue, Claudia asked for the recipe.
1 large (2.5kg-plus) free-range chicken
100ml vegetable (not olive) oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Cut through the backbone of the chicken lengthways, flatten it out and put it into a roasting pan, bone side up. Monsieur Koffman suggests rubbing it all over with goose fat at this stage and, while I would probably eat a telephone directory cooked in goose fat, I am not sure it is absolutely necessary in this case. Season with salt and pepper, and pop it into the oven for 25 minutes. Turn it over and cook it skin side up for 15 minutes, or until the skin is brown and glossy.
While this is going on, make the vinaigrette, first chopping the shallots as finely as you can, then adding all the other ingredients.
When the chicken has achieved bronzed maturity, pour the vinaigrette over the bird, turn off the oven and let it be for 10 minutes, or even longer, to allow the juices of the chicken to mingle with those of the dressing.
Crunchy winter salad
4 large carrots
4 sticks of celery
2 green apples
3 heads of chicory
6 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
Cut the carrots, celery and apples into short, thickish matchsticks. Cut the heads of chicory into strips the same length and width as the other ingredients. Dress with the oil and vinegar, and season. When you serve the chicken, just pass a tablespoon or so of juices from the roasting pan over the salad.
Rough and ready really rich bread and butter pudding
Look, I know there are as many recipes for bread and butter pudding as there are cooks cooking them, and I won't lay claim to any huge novelty for mine. It just is very, very rich. And delicious. And it is delicious because it is so rich. And that richness starts with the ingredients.
In an ideal world, my bread and butter pudding is made with Cornish saffron bread, which is as yellow as daffodils and liberally speckled with sultanas, and with buffalo milk, which is available at Waitrose, as well as other discerning shops. Buffalo milk has roughly twice the butterfat content of cows' milk. It is like drinking velvet. However, on the assumption that many of you may not have easy access to these ingredients, try full-cream Jersey or Guernsey cows' milk, plus cream instead; and panettone, that fashionable, but actually not particularly appetising, Italian cake, makes a reasonable substitute for the saffron bread.
About 6 slices Cornish saffron bread (or panettone), cut about 1.5cm thick - it's difficult to be exact: it depends on the size of the baking dish you're using
500ml buffalo milk (or 225ml Jersey/Guernsey cows' milk mixed with 225ml single cream)
2 tsp vanilla essence
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Butter the slices of bread and lay butter side down to cover the base of a baking dish. Place another layer of buttered bread on top, buttered side up. Mix together the milk (or milk and cream), eggs, sugar and vanilla essence, and pass through a sieve over the bread. Let it sit for five minutes. Into the oven it goes for about 30 minutes. Let it cool for 10 minutes. Dust with icing sugar and serve with clotted cream or some such.