Goodness this November is a drag. Without wanting to sound a total misery (which I’m not), but doesn’t it feel that the dreariness of February has arrived three months early? Lockdown, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, has taken the sheen off life. Have we ever valued the simple act of sharing a cup of tea with a neighbour, having real-life creative conversations with colleagues or a wander round the shops, so much as we do now? I realised yesterday that this is the first year in forever when – forgive me – there’s been no chance of getting a pig roast, whether it’s at a wedding, country fair, open day, you name it. All I can now think about is crackling. Make of that what you will.
It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the drudge. You can either forget the present and project yourself into the future – it’s no coincidence that several people near me have gone WAY EARLY with their Christmas decorations. Or you can immerse yourself in something completely different, a diversion ideally of a comforting and creative nature. And so this weekend I found myself leafing through the superlative River Cottage Meat Book, reminding myself of the joy of solid, classic, non-poncy, ingredient-led cookery.
I can feel some project cookery coming on. Back in Lockdown 1 we were all about house and garden, messing around with tulips and plug plants. Lockdown 2 is looking likely to be about lard. And suet. Plus butter, obviously. I still dream of cooking a whole ham (A WHOLE HAM!) but given that it would serve at least 20 people, it is perhaps not the best vehicle to relieve lockdown fatigue. Ditto the proper fore-rib of beef. I will probably take it easy with a spot of salt beef…and as thoughts turn to Christmas, maybe a pork pie or two. I’ll keep you posted of progress.
In the meantime, here is a far simpler dish, one to have a go at mid-week when a bit of gentle kitchen pottering is needed after a day of Zoom calls. It’s vegetarian, inexpensive, authentic and – most importantly – really tasty. I have got into the habit of keeping diced paneer in the freezer, and there’s always chickpeas, tomatoes and spices to hand. So consider it the perfect store cupboard curry – and what could be more 2020 than that?
Paneer and chickpea curry
Serves 4. Adapted from Waitrose Weekend recipe by Chetna Makan.
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 green chillies – the long thin ones – left whole. (If you like it hot, slice them up)
2 fat cloves of garlic, bashed and chopped
a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 chilli powder (or more/less to taste)
1 tsp ground tumeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 tomatoes, chopped
about 200ml water
400g can chickpeas
about 200g paneer, diced
1 tsp sugar
I use a karahi for this but you can also use a heavy-based sauté pan or casserole.
Heat the oil over a medium heat, add the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle, then tip in the onions, chillies and good pinch of salt. Gently fry for about 5 minutes, until quite soft and turning golden. Add the garlic and ginger, then the ground spices – fry them for a scant minute just to cook the spices – then add the tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or so until you have a thick, amalgamated sauce, loosening with water as needed.
Tip in the chickpeas and paneer, then cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavours to come together. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar as required. Serve with rice, chutneys and maybe a piquant chopped salad of onion, cucumber and tomato.
Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Chicken in white wine, with leftovers turned into a filthy chicken tartiflette. Gingerbread. Ordering the Christmas meats and, as every year, my plans of beef or something else interesting has been given up to tradition: turkey it is.
Garden and allotment: Clearing last of the annuals, cutting back perennials. Planted out hellebores. Started off broadbeans. Clearing the masses of leaves that have blown into both front and back garden. The cosmos etc started last month are a leggy mess so once again I ask, what point is there starting annuals in the autumn?
Also: Trying to dodge the ‘what am I doing with my life’ lockdown gloom with cookbooks, plus starting Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. I have totally lost my ability to drink all alcohol other than traditional-method sparkling wine, coming out in instant allergic reaction at the mere sip of wine or beer. Spirits are a distant memory. Whilst I partly enjoy how pretentious my liver has become, this is a source of great sadness.