A very short essay, a diary entry, recipes, and notes on eating.
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my new Substack. Each week I will send out a short piece of writing, recipes and notes on what I’ve been eating at home and elsewhere.
Few things excite me more when I cook than realising a recipe is teaching me a new method. What I mean by this, is a recipe that gives me an insight into an ingredient or a process that permanently transforms my understanding of cooking. Such a recipe might reveal formerly unknown qualities of a vegetable, or the temperature at which to add an ingredient to the pan so that it becomes delicious (and not disgusting). The usefulness of the method extends beyond the immediate context of that one recipe to form the basis of more dishes. Such methods function like elements of grammar, enabling the cook to annunciate new things for themselves. Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Turkish Eggs is not only a breakfast I cook about once a month (at least), it also gave me an invaluable yogurt-warming method. Julia Child’s recipe for steak in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, taught me to add meat to a pan when the foaming from the butter has just subsided. Fuchsia Dunlop’s cool steamed aubergines has a dressing in which you heat oil in a pan and then pour it over raw garlic, ginger, and spring onions to effectively ‘cook’ the fragrant elements on the serving dish, instantly imbuing the aubergine with their flavour. Rachel Roddy’s recipes have given me many methods – but her lentil, potato and bitter greens soup is one of my favourite lunches and taught me to have faith the power of modest ingredients to make a delicious broth. In its heyday, I loved Rowley Leigh’s recipe column in the Financial Times magazine because it always gave me more than a dish, it gave me a new way of seeing whatever he was writing about.
I was lucky recently to make a meal that included two dishes from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, both of which taught me new methods. Below is a diary entry and recipes from this meal.
Chard, Parsley and Chop
I had woken up at 6am panicked about everything. I decided to settle on panicking about the allotment and researched strimmers and mowers on my phone while my partner slept. I logged into my father’s Which? account online and read reviews of strimmers and electric mowers. I decided on a strimmer. Cutting the grass verges and paths on the plot by hand uses a lot of my scant energy and neglecting to do so last summer resulted in a phone call from my allotment neighbour. I drove to B&Q on my own. They did not have the strimmer I found online in my research, so I bought a different one whose rating on Which?, I did not know. And also, fuchsia coloured cyclamen and yellow primroses to plant around the apricot tree, landscaping bark and weed repressing fabric to keep the grass down around the raised beds, large sacks to take weeds to the garden waste area at the dump (my allotment neighbour had indicated, strongly, that he wished me to do this some time ago), bird food and a bird feeder. I came home and assembled the strimmer and put the battery on charge. I realised it would be dark before the battery was charged, and that I was too tired to do any of the other things so I went to look at the plot as I had promised myself I would. I was very nervous.
I walked around. I saw a cat shit on the path near the apricot tree. A lot of parsley in huge, thick clumps in the middle of the plot and in one of the raised beds. The cicoria had survived and was still going; I trimmed it down to encourage new leaves and did the same with some chard. I dug out an errant chard plant that was suffocating a small lavender bush. The chard root had grown perversely thick, two inches, and was sucking up all available energy. I wondered if you could cook chard roots. I also pulled out fat hen and a thistly plant with thousands of tiny seeds on feathery parachutes. The artichokes were making an exuberant return. I noted that on another visit I should move the tiny fig tree. I harvested chard, parsley, cicoria, rosemary and covered over as much of the weed covered areas as I could with plastic that I bought from the town council. I saw an unexpected fungus and a lot of large spiders. I screamed once. I saw a cat’s footsteps in another neighbour’s pristine bare earth (not the one who phones me). I saw no people, for which I was glad.
I rested when I got home and in the evening I cooked a meal of veal chop with steamed chard salad, Austrian style potatoes, and salsa verde. I learned two new methods from the Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan which I bought along with several other of her books for research last year. Hazan’s method for cooking chard was particularly exciting to me.
Nodini di vitello alla salvia
(Veal Chops with Sage and White Wine)
By chance, I had all the ingredients to make Hazan’s ‘Nodini di vitello alla salvia’ Veal Chops with Sage and White Wine. I had never cooked a veal chop before, but had one in the freezer after coming across a butcher selling rose veal after a walk in a rural town. I had fewer chops than Hazan suggested – one between two – though when I cook steak or pork chop we usually share and have more vegetables. I used different quantities, used fresh sage instead of dried and added a spritz of lemon, but followed Hazan’s cooking method with flour and vegetable oil followed by the sauce – it produced a glorious, burnished chop and a good butter sauce with no fuss. I think it would be good with pork chops too. My only issue was that, as I was only cooking one chop in a pan that was slightly too large for it, the pan became too hot and some of the sage burned. Next time (as I indicate in the instructions) I will use a smaller pan.
Ingredients (for 2):
1 veal chop (you could also use a pork chop) – quite thick, ¾ an inch
8 fresh sage leaves
enough plain flour to coat the chop
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5-6 tablespoons of white wine
a knob of cold unsalted butter (c. 30g)
½ a lemon
How to make:
Heat the vegetable oil on a medium-high heat in a heavy pan that fits the chop quite snugly. Coat the chop in flour on a plate and shake off the excess. Add the chop to the heated oil with the sage leaves. Turn the chop every 1-2 two minutes, over around 8 minutes so that it is still pink in the middle. Until it is beautifully golden brown on each side. Then remove it from the pan and season it with salt and black pepper on each side.
To make the sauce: pour away any oil left in the pan and then add the wine to the cooking pan, simmer and reduce the wine in by ¾ so you are left with 1-2 tablespoons of wine, then turn the heat off and whisk in the cold butter until it melts and then add squeeze of lemon. Add the chop back to the pan and turn it in the sauce and then put on a plate with the sauce over the top. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if desired.
Steamed Chard Salad
Hazan had a brilliant chard recipe in her book; the genius of the method is that you wash the chard and gently steam it in the water that clings to it from washing.
A bunch of chard, well washed – I wash greens by leaving them in a large bowl / clean washing up bowl filled with cold water for 5 minutes, during which time any grit usually falls to the bottom. I usually repeat this process once or twice if the greens are particularly muddy.
How to make:
Put the washed chard in a saucepan with a pinch of salt and a lid on a low-medium heat for 10-12 minutes or until tender. Squeeze out any excess water. Lay out on a plate to cool. Dress with olive oil and a little more salt and pepper just before serving. Add shavings of parmesan too if you like.
There are many variations of salsa verde, all of which I like. This one was particularly good with the veal and reminded me of one I had in Sicily with a piece of boiled veal five years ago.
a bunch of parsley, with the thickest tough stalks removed
a tablespoon of salted capers, rinsed
a teaspoon of Dijon mustard
olive oil (added at the end until desired consistency is achieved)
lemon juice (added to taste)
red wine vinegar (added to taste)
How to make:
I made the sauce in a pestle and mortar, but a blender may be easier.
First pound (or blitz) the anchovies, capers, parsley and mustard. Then slowly add olive oil until it makes a thick sauce. Then season with a little vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice until it is an acidity that you like – I think this is quite personal. The capers were preserved in salt, so I did not add extra salt. Again, judge the salt to taste if you are using brined capers.
Austrian Potato Salad
If making the whole meal, make this first as it takes the longest. The new method I learned here was to use stock (I had a beef stock cube, vegetable bouillon would also be good) to make a dressing that is absorbed by the potatoes. I found variations of this method various different websites for Austrian style potato salad.
750 g waxy potatoes, scrubbed or peeled if necessary
c 150ml of hot beef, chicken, or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
one shallot, finely diced
1 teaspoon sugar
salt to taste
How to make:
Cook potatoes in cold water until tender – check with a knife, and cut one in half if in doubt. Allow potatoes to cool for 5 minutes, then slice thickly and put in a serving dish deep enough to take the dressing. Make a dressing with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a finely diced shallot, a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar, salt, black pepper, and a ladleful of hot stock. Mix well, pour over the potatoes, and turn the potatoes well in the dressing. It’s a bit soupy at first, but the starch from the potatoes thickens it up if you let it rest before eating. Serve room temperature.
Japanese Cat Rice or ‘Neko manma’ which I have been wanting to make for a long time since it featured in an episode of Midnight Diner, a Japanese TV series set in a diner that is open from midnight to 7am. The cook who runs the diner makes whatever dish each customer wants – so long as he has the ingredients. His diner is a place of refuge for all comers, and eating his food often brings about intense moments of recollection for customers as eating leads them to tell stories about their lives. For cat rice you top cooked rice with katsuobushi, which is floaty-thin shavings of smoked, fermented Skip Jack tuna (I bought mine online), and soy sauce. I served it with hard boiled eggs, and seaweed salad.
Pistachio cake and a flat white coffee at Dover Street Market, which should have felt like a glamorous treat, but a man kept talking to me and asked to take my photo(!), which I found to be intrusive.
Vanilla ice cream with rhubarb cooked until soft with half a teaspoon of cinnamon, the juice of an orange and a few pieces of its rind and a couple of tablespoons of sugar, at my friend Zoe’s house (no photo!)
Lunch for one of a two egg omelette with parsley, bread and butter, my mum’s pickled red and yellow peppers, and a chicory salad dressed with: 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ tablespoon white wine vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper.