It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the indomitable Clarissa Dickson Wright last month. She, and her Two Fat Ladies co-star Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999, were in many ways quite the best sort of eccentric British women. They just don’t make them like that any more!
It seemed right to choose a recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook on my shelf – an Oxfam bookshop find a couple of years ago. The dust-jacket notes describe Clarissa and Jennifer ‘visiting the far corners of the British Isles in their continuing mission to rescue us from food fads and philistinism’ and really, wasn’t that always the point of the Two Fat Ladies?
The recipe I chose, as titled in the book, is ‘Salmon Cutlets with Leeks and Cream’ – and this immediately caused me a problem which would have Jennifer and Clarissa either spinning in their graves, or, I hope, chuckling gently to themselves.
The humble salmon cutlet – or salmon steak portion – sliced straight across the fish with the backbone in the centre, and which I remember being a regular feature of the special-occasion dinner table while I was growing up has, it would appear, gone so far out of fashion that it’s no longer available from supermarket fish counters. Here in the Midlands, supermarket fish counters are they’re more or less our only fresh fish option.
The fishmonger shrugged apologetically as she explained that unless they had a whole salmon to sell off, it just wasn’t a cut they sold these days. Apparently fish with bones in isn’t the done thing any more.
And so, with profound apologies to Jennifer (for it is her recipe), salmon fillets it had to be. To serve two, you will need –
- Two salmon portions. Cutlets / steaks if you can get them, fillets if, like me, you can’t.
- Two mid-sized leeks
- 150ml double cream
- Unsalted butter
- ~100g of cooked prawns (mine were frozen, and defrosted before use)
- A lemon
- Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 190C. Slice the leeks reasonably thinly and fry until softened with a large knob of butter.
While the leeks are cooking, whip your cream until it reaches ‘dolloping’ consistency. This is remarkably hard work to do by hand, especially if like me you’re carrying an old wrist injury, so I suggest you don’t follow my example and instead use an electric whisk if you have access to one!
Lightly butter or oil two pieces of aluminium foil, large enough to enclose each salmon portion generously. Start with about half the softened leeks in the centre, lay the salmon portion on top of these, and then spoon the rest of the leeks over.
Finally add a generous dollop of whipped double cream and half the prawns to each portion. Squeeze over about a teaspoon of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Now carefully fold up your foil parcels, place these in an oven proof dish, and put in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes.
Once they’re cooked, unwrap your little packages, and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I made some boulangère potatoes, which were a good match). Squeeze over a dash more lemon juice, if you like.
This is a really nice dish – probably a bit swish for a weekday supper but actually, apart from the cream whipping palaver, pretty quick and straightforward. It feels a little bit like food from another era – and in some respects, of course, it’s just that – but the flavours are fresh, distinct, and complement each other nicely. I wasn’t initially convinced by the idea of the prawns, but they do add a sweetness and a different texture to the dish.
Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle, by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Ebury Press, 1998.
Hard cover, 192 pages, single-colour printing with full colour plates. RRP £17.99.
[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought second-hand from a charity bookshop. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]
This book accompanied the third (and penultimate) series of Two Fat Ladies. The recipes are contributed equally by Jennifer and Clarissa and seem to leap off the page in their original voices, which is lovely. Yes, these are recipes full of sugar, butter and cream, offal, game and red meat. Really, what did you expect?
A lot of the recipes are highly seasonal or call for rather unusual ingredients (seafood and game feature strongly) and you may struggle to find all the bits and pieces on a trip to an average provincial supermarket! This is no bad thing in my opinion – too many recipe books these days seem to be compiled with one eye on the contents of the shelves of the local Tesco (I can’t help but think Jennifer in particular would have been appalled by how far the hegemony of the supermarkets has progressed in the last decade and a half).
The book, in both its content and presentation, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Naked Chef’ reviewed here a few weeks back – it’s a bit startling to realise that the Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef overlapped on UK television in 1999 (and indeed shared a production company, Optomen Television) – they feel so much like food culture from different eras. The publication date, 1998, is just a year before Jamie’s first blockbuster book offering hit our shelves.
If Jamie was the first in the vanguard of the young, cool, celebrity chefs, then Jennifer and Clarissa were undoubtedly part of the culture of old-school cooks. As a reminder, then, that it serves us to look backwards to our own traditional food culture, as well as outward to that of other countries, these recipes deserve a place in all of our collections.
‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!
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