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Ribollita-ish

I am a veg box cook.

This means that I wait expectantly for my little parcel of joy to arrive each week, and then I respond in the manner of a particularly affected actor. It’s an improvisational encounter, darling. So much more authentic.

The veg box obsession is due to the fact that I don’t like supermarket packaging, and my well-intentioned resolutions to shop locally never come to much. The box arrives each week without me giving it much thought, and I take it inside and cook with it. If this means I have to occasionally process rather more romanesque cauliflower than I’d prefer, I’m willing to live with it.

What I like most of all is to see the seasons filter through to the meals I cook. I grew up with grandparents who kept a fantastic vegetable garden, and I’m still in the habit of getting excited about new things coming up: purple spouting broccoli in the winter, and asparagus in the summer.

All this virtuous seasonality means that Herbert rarely cooks. When I met him, he wowed me with his absorption method for rice and his magical way with a toad in the hole. He came with a cupboardful of Swiss ingredients that were brought over by his mother – a special paste for making gravy, a herb vinegar called Kressi and little cans of MSG-fuelled salad seasoning called Aromat (which you can get in Sainsbury’s).

But somewhere along the line, I took over. It wasn’t deliberate. It was just that everything was quicker and tidier when I did it. I’ve always loved cooking, and there were a million new recipes I wanted to try. I think I rather elbowed Herbert out of the way.

Nowadays, when he wants make dinner, he can find nothing in the house that he knows how to cook. Herbert’s preferred method of making a meal is to take a tiny portion of every vegetable in the fridge, fry it up and throw a can of tomatoes over it. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad, but what’s clear is that it just doesn’t work with swede and Jerusalem artichoke.

In any case, I like cooking most nights. As I work from home, I need something to help me make the transition from day to evening. Tonight, I make Ribollita, my highly inauthentic take on the classic Tuscan stew. Herbert and I ate it during a particularly acrimonious holiday in Lucca, when we argued our way through a rain-drenched October fortnight. Therefore, I don’t cook it it evoke happy memories; I cook it because it’s the nicest way I know to use up a glut of winter greens and not much else in the fridge.

I’ll leave it to restaurants to get it exactly right; I’m a home cook, and I’m allowed to eat what I’m hungry for. My ribollita is chunky and toothsome rather than pulpy; this makes is a great deal quicker, too. As for the correctness of the ingredients: well, let’s just say I made it very successfully with chorizo last week, and leave it at that.

Download the recipe: Ribollita-ish

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Poached Chicken

New Year, New You my arse. I was quite happy with the me that existed before 31st December, thanks very much.

This year, I just can’t muster up the requisite self-hatred to go on a new year diet. It just wouldn’t seem like learning my lesson somehow. Ditto the pointless annual alcohol fast, conducted as a kind of macabre experiment to see if I might be a teeny bit addicted to the sauce. What the hell. This year, I intend to accept that sometimes I mix a martini when what I really need is ten minutes in my happy place, and move on.

However, amends do need to be made. I am not convinced I have been getting my five a day over the holiday period. Moreover, I accept that it’s not a good thing to habitually swig Gaviscon as if it’s a digestif. I feel the need to stick a flag in the ground that says, ‘Normal eating is resumed.’

What’s more, I need to carry out my annual chutney cull. This vexes me somewhat. I used to be the only chutney maker I knew. Every year, I would turn out a dozen smart jars of plum, apple or fig, and proudly present them as Christmas presents. Nowadays, everyone’s at it. Which means that, increasingly, I don’t end up making any of my own. Plus, Herbert is in the habit of picking up a jar of something every time he buys cheese. It’s always disappointing and over-shiny, and it stacks up. The cupboard has got so full that the least movement makes four jars topple out, like those penny machines in seaside arcades.

I submerge a whole chicken in my deep stock pot with onions, carrots, garlic, ginger and celery bobbing around it. As an afterthought, I slosh in the remains of the NYE champagne. As it begins to bubble happily, I delve into the cupboard, casting out no less that three jars of soft pickled onions, six jars of random chutney, two blackcurrant squash bottles that have less than an centimetre of cordial left in them apiece (Herbert is the blackcurrant drinker in this house, that’s all I’m saying), and a kilner jar of greying cherries in brandy. I am alarmed to find a bottle of red wine vinegar with a thick cap of mould; I didn’t know that was possible.

Now I’m left with the sickly task of disposing of the contents of the jars. I am glooping them into the bin when Herbert comes home. He gazes between the bin and the boiling chicken and then quickly exits the kitchen. I call him back to admire my pristinely empty cupboards.

‘There,’ I say, ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’

‘Mmm,’ says Herbert, who only ever goes in there for mustard, marmite or his MSG-based Swiss salad seasoning.

‘This year, there will be a rule: one jar in, one jar out. No stockpiling weird ingredients.’ He smirks. He knows that’s not possible.

We eat the chicken in front of the TV, with spelt grains thrown into the broth and purple sprouting broccoli on the side. I had planned to make salsa verde to dribble on top, but in the new spirit of cupboard-clearing, I blob nasturtium pesto onto it instead, a gift from a friend’s summer garden. It goes some way to taking the ascetic edge off the dish.

As does the glass of sherry I pour afterwards, to use up the Christmas stash. I don’t want to become that person, after all.

Recipe: Poached Chicken with Spelt

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