It was a little after 11 am, I had just set the table. I took a step back as I counted the chairs - 6 in total. A smile spread across my face, it had been far too long since we last had guests over and my excitement at having those 2 extra place settings was palpable.
Cooking for others is my way of showing and giving love. Taking the time to decide on a menu; writing down my plan of what has to go into the oven when and navigating the time it will take to have everything ready and laid out on the table at the same time is something that brings joy to my whole being.
It is the whole process though, from the initial invitation to our home, right through to the buying of the produce, (or picking from our very own garden) to the prepping, the stirring, the cooking, the setting of the table, the freshly pressed napkins, the foraged florals, the choosing of the plates and platters and then watching as it all comes together - sometimes with ease and others...well, let's just say it can get a little interesting with two small children to worry about as well!
It was my Mum and Dad who were the first to sit at our small but mighty kitchen table after lockdown. The table groaned with a piping hot pan of glistening pork chops perfumed with fresh sage and fennel seeds, the crackling so crisp it was as if we were stood upon a carpet of Autumn leaves. Slow-cooked cabbage mingled with crispy bacon and the subtle smokiness of caraway. Burnished florets of cauliflower were dotted with vibrant pickled red cabbage and the potatoes - golden and crunchy, had been showered with a smoky almond dukkah from Gewurzhaus
It was a celebration of togetherness, one that was well overdue and one that made it even more obvious just how important it is to cherish these moments of sitting at the table sharing food and laughing. Where the conversation is allowed to flow in between mouthfuls; where cutlery scrapes against china plates and where, as always, some of the best memories are made.
So, here it is, a menu for celebrating being together once again.
I recommend reading through the whole recipe steps here before starting so that you can get all of your cooking times organised and what needs to go into the oven when. I would generally get my potatoes and cabbage ready and cooking, along with the cauliflower and then concentrate on the pork. The apple pie can be made the day before right up to when you need to bake it so that it is ready to go in the oven once everything else has been taken out.
For the Pork
*Recipe from Jamie Oliver's cookbook, 30 Minute Meals. Slightly adapted.
7 good-quality pork chops, skin on
8 cloves of garlic
4 eschalots or 1 red onion, skin removed and sliced
1 leek, sliced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
a small bunch of fresh sage leaves
honey for drizzling
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius. Trim the skin off the chops, leaving a bit of fat behind on each chop. Cut the skin into 3cm slices and put them into a frying pan fat side down, over high heat and cook until it starts to crisp up and turn golden. Leave them to work their magic while you score across the fat side of the chops all the way along. Season with salt and pepper.
Squash the unpeeled cloves of garlic with the heel of your hand and add these to the pan along with the onion and leek and stir to combine. Push the crackling to the side of pan and then stand all of the chops up in the pan with the fat side down. Use tongs to transfer the crackling and garlic to a large roasting tray. Scatter over the fennel seeds and place into the oven while you pick the sage leaves.
When the fat side of the chops are golden, lay them flat side down and cook for another 4 minutes until golden on both sides. Take the tray from the oven and place the chops and sage leaves into it. Arranging the crackling and garlic in and around the chops. Drizzle with a little honey and olive oil and return the tray to the oven for about 10 minutes until it all looks golden and luscious.
For the Crispy potatoes...
*This recipe was inspired by the lovely Kathy Tsaples from her book My shared table.
1 kg potatoes (I used sebago)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp Smoky almond dukkah (from Gewurzhaus)
Wash the potatoes and then cut them into largish wedges or quarters. Pat them dry with a tea towel or paper towel and place them into a non-stick baking tray. Scatter over the salt and then pour in the olive oil and water. Bake for at least an hour to an hour and a half until they are so gloriously crisped they shatter in between your teeth.
Sprinkle over the dukkah.
For the Cauliflower...
Half a large cauliflower, broken into small florets and the stems sliced
1 tsp cumin seeds
enough pickled cabbage (homemade or store-bought) to scatter over the top
Place the cauliflower into a baking tray lined with baking paper and drizzle with a good glug of olive oil, a scattering of salt and a good crack of black pepper, add the cumin seeds and give everything a good mix. Pop into the oven for about 30 minutes until the cauliflower is golden and slightly charred. You can do this step before anything else, as it can be served either hot or at room temperature.
When ready to serve place on to a serving dish and scatter the pickled cabbage over the top.
For the slow-cooked cabbage with bacon...
*recipe inspired by Jul's Kitchen
6 rashers of bacon, thinly sliced
1 medium white cabbage, finely shredded
4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp caraway seeds
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp dijon mustard
Fill a large pot with water and add a good pinch of salt and the apple cider vinegar, bring to the boil and drop the cabbage in, blanching for 5 minutes. Drain the cabbage and place it under cold running water, using tongs to lift it up to make sure the water gets it all. This will halt the cooking process. Squeeze as much of the liquid out of the cabbage as you can and then place it into a colander.
Heat a large frying pan over high heat and add the bacon, cooking until it starts to release its fat and turns golden, add in a little olive oil followed by the cabbage, stirring to coat everything together. Now reduce the heat to low-medium and continue to cook, stirring every now and then for at least half an hour. Add in the caraway seeds and cook for another 3 minutes and then add the honey and dijon and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
And now for dessert...
Apple and Rhubarb pie with a fennel seed crust
*Recipe inspired by one from Gourmet Traveller by Emma Knowles
100g unsalted butter, chopped
1.2kg granny smith apples, thickly sliced
1kg rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 3cm pieces
450g raw caster sugar
4 cinnamon quills
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
juice and zest of an orange and lemon
60g fresh breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten lightly, for brushing
20g demerara sugar for sprinkling on top
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg, lightly beaten for egg wash
For the pastry
450g plain flour
120g pure icing sugar
225g cold unsalted butter, chopped
seeds of a vanilla bean or 1 tsp of vanilla bean paste
1 tbsp ground fennel seeds
1-2 tbsp cold water
Starting with the pastry, sift the flour and icing sugar into a large bowl along with a pinch of salt. Add the butter and the fennel seeds and using the tips of your fingers rub the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse crumbs, a few chunks of butter are ok here. Add in the egg and use your fingertips to break it apart in with the flour, next add in the water bit by bit until it comes together, try not to handle it too much, it's ok if it looks shaggy. Wrap it up in baking paper and place in the fridge to rest for at least an hour or overnight.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat and then add the apple, stirring to combine for about 5 minutes. Add the rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla seeds and bean and stir to combine. continue to cook, while stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes or until it is beginning to soften. Stir in the citrus juices and rinds and then pour this mixture through a sieve which is sitting over the top of a large bowl. You may need to push down on the mixture slightly. Reserve the syrup and remove the vanilla bean and cinnamon. Spread the apple mixture onto a large tray and allow to cool and then stir through the breadcrumbs. (you can always make this the day before too)
Simmer the reserved syrup until reduced to a thin syrup, about 10-15 minutes.
When you are ready to make your pie, preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius. If you have rested your pastry overnight in the fridge make sure to take it out at least an hour or so before so it is easier to roll out. Roll two-thirds of the pastry out onto a lightly floured bench to about 3mm thick. Give a 23cm pie tin, with 4cm high sides a quick once over with some softened butter and then lay your pastry very carefully into the base, picking up the edges and pressing them down into the dish, trim off the excess pastry and then tip in the fruit, levelling it all out so that it sits evenly.
Roll out the remaining pastry on a lightly floured bench into a round until 3mm thick. Brush the edges of the base with egg wash and place the lid on top, crimping the edges in whatever fashion you so desire. Cut out a small round in the centre and either discard, give to your chooks or pop it into your mouth, as I do! I am a great lover of raw pastry...
Brush the top of the pastry with eggwash once again and then scatter over the combined demerara sugar and cinnamon, bake until dark golden for about 45 minutes - 1 hour. If you notice it is colouring too quickly simply just cover the top with a piece of foil. Make sure if you have little ones that they haven't accidentally hit the oven setting over to grill as my little man did!! Luckily I caught it just in time!
Allow to rest for at least 1/2 an hour before serving and then serve with a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a drizzle of the reserved syrup. If you find you have leftover syrup it is particularly good drizzled over your morning bowl of granola or porridge...