‘Audubon’ goes back to basics

Wander into any large supermarket these days and you will be assailed by the smell of bread. Follow your nose, by all means, for the aroma of new-baked bread is one of life’s absolute treats. Sad, then, that the taste – the real taste – of new-baked bread is so much more of a challenge to track down! But shop around and you will find that there are fine artisan bakers out there. Check out the Farmers’ Markets, for example, and you will discover fabulous sourdoughs, boules, pains de campagne – all just waiting to be turned into entire meals. Let’s start with some soup.

Elizabeth David wrote in one of her books of the horror some ‘chef’ displayed when she gave him the recipe for a mushroom soup thickened with bread. He thought that it was peasant cooking: and so it was, and all the better for it. You will need a couple of pints of good chicken stock to start with. Ideally, you’ll have made it yourself with some chicken wings, onion, celery, leek, carrots, and the like; but if time is pressing, a decent fresh supermarket stock will do. A large jug of hot water and a stock cube, however, will not.

For two people, you will need a good thick slice of bread – place it in a dish, pour a little hot stock over it, and leave it to fester for ten or twenty minutes. Meanwhile, finely chop some banana shallot or an onion and perhaps a little garlic and set over the heat with a generous slug of unsalted butter –we are after the healthy option here [News to me. Ed]. Clean quite a lot of decent mushrooms, and chop them up. If you can lay your hands on some soaked dried mushrooms – porcini or the like – the finished result will be all the better for the additional expense. Fry the mushrooms until the juices run, and then add the bread and the remaining stock. A little fresh thyme would not go amiss. Twenty minutes or so should do it, after which transfer everything to the blender and wreak serious havoc until you have an unctuous, smooth broth. Check the seasoning, or just add pepper. Double cream would tart it up if you were trying to impress, but then you’d have turned your back on the peasantry.

It is now what passes for summer, give or take, so let’s have a salad. In a suitable bowl, place a generous quantity of slices of good bread. If it is a touch on the stale side, so much the better. For two people, take about three-quarters of a pound of really good, juicy tomatoes. (Make friends with a greenhouse-owner.) Place a sieve over another bowl, and skin the tomatoes in the usual way. Cut in half over the sieve, press out all the seeds and leave to drain. Crush a little garlic and add to the tomato juice, along with a serious grinding of black pepper. Add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, and three or four of really good olive oil. Pour over the bread and toss until all the liquid has been absorbed. Next, you will need some good skinned peppers – red and yellow, ideally. If you can source a high quality jar of ready-skinned, you might cheat here. Otherwise, grill them until blackened, and then peel. Now you can begin to compose your salad. You might wish to include some black olives, a few anchovies, and some capers – but be sure to rinse the capers of their salt. Then: a layer of soaked bread, of tomato, of peppers, and all the rest. Repeat, ending with the tomatoes rather than the bread. Dress with plenty of torn basil leaves, and leave to mature until you have to eat. More basil: perhaps; more oil: definitely.

Cheese for the next course, served with fresh and crusty bread. A hard cheese such as Comté, perhaps, or Emmental, along with something soft and perhaps blue. Gorgonzola or Roquefort are hard to beat. Time now to reclaim a proper British pudding from the gastropub vandals who have thought nothing of abusing it with panettone, hot-cross buns, fruit loaves, or pains au chocolat – there is even a recipe online which involves bananas and Bailey’s Irish Cream.

You will need bread; and you will need butter – also eggs, milk, sugar, and dried fruit, and perhaps a touch of vanilla. Butter some slices of bread, and do not cut the crusts off – it would be a waste. Arrange them in an ovenproof dish so that they overlap each other, and lean at something like 45 degrees. Now (building on last month’s advice) mix together about half a pint of milk – preferably full cream – with a couple of egg yolks and a level tablespoon of caster sugar. A scraping of vanilla seeds straight from the pod would be a good addition if you have any to hand. Pour over the buttered bread, and strew a generous handful of dried fruit over the result. Leave to soak for at least half an hour. Do not add marmalade, cinnamon, or grated chocolate. A very final gentle sprinkling of caster sugar might help, after which bake in a moderate oven, gas mark 4 or thereabouts, for about half an hour – until the custard is set, and the bread is crisp and golden. Serve just as it is, resisting all temptation to provide an accompaniment of ice cream, double cream, yoghurt, or Bailey’s.