Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

ONE of the cooks who had the greatest influence on me in my girlhood was not a cook at all, or even a real person. She was Lady Addle, that wonderful fictional character of the Forties, a distressed noblewoman struggling against the austerities of the Home Front in the second world war, whose exploits I discovered on the bookshelves at home.

I used to laugh until I cried at her valiant attempts to produce appetising food for her terrified evacuees in the most testing of circumstances: without a cook, without any knowledge of cooking and without any ingredients to speak of. In order to cover up the lack of actual food, Lady Addle was reduced to lunatic improvisations with tennis-balls, old hair-nets and sump oil, with black-market bananas or caviare from her shady sister Mipsie inevitably coming to the rescue in the end.

I feel rather like Lady Addle about salmon. Salmon, as she might have said, is not what it was. Once an expensive delicacy, it has now, like chicken, become flavourless, factory-farmed fast food. Yet supermarket salmon is an essential staple food; it is cheap, nutritious, neatly packaged in fillets and steaks and is on every list of the ten healthiest things you can eat, along with broccoli, brazil nuts and dried Hunza apricots. So, the domestic cook must bring the resolution of a Lady Addle to those sad, artificially orange little bits of fish.

My favourite method is to cook salmon fillets, individually wrapped in foil, for about 15 or 20 minutes in an oven heated to about 180C. It is quicker to roast them uncovered in a hot oven for about 8-10 minutes or to grill them on a hot metal sheet or Le Creuset (or similar) dish for 6-7 minutes. But baking in foil is the simplest method, the least smelly and the least likely to make the salmon dry. I think the fish actually improves by waiting for a while in its foil parcels, if you take it out when still slightly underdone. This leaves plenty of time to do something about the rest of supper and even about some sort of sauce - always the problem for the hard-pressed domestic cook, who has no time for serious sauces.

Even without sauce, you can improve the flavour a great deal by what you put inside the foil. The principle is always the same: put a little butter or oil on a large piece of foil, with seasonings both under and over the fish, then wrap it up securely, but loosely, to let some air circulate inside. My favourite combination is a little olive oil, with a bed of spring onion shredded lengthwise and roughly chopped parsley, a few drops of lemon juice, and finally salt and pepper, with the same combination scattered over the top. You could add butter instead, or a little good white wine. Dill is always excellent with salmon, and so, too, are chervil and basil; it is good to cut the richness of salmon with a strong contrasting flavour.

The very strong and indeed quite crude flavours of ginger and soy sauce go fairly well with salmon, too; they are also popular with children who do not normally like the oily taste of salmon. For each piece of fish you could use a couple of pinches of grated fresh ginger, some shredded spring onions, a couple of teaspoons of soy oil and lots of coriander (including stalks), with peanut or grapeseed oil on the foil underneath. You could also add bits of smashed lemon grass, a few drops of sesame oil, or some Thai fish sauce. If you deliberately add rather too much liquid, this will then flavour some plain rice to go with it. …

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