Memorable Mealtime Moments
In writing these notes, I realised that all the items I mention are still as popular today as they were 50 or more years ago. As the French say: “Plus ça change…”
As a child during World War II and, like everyone else, first endured and then made the best of the small rations of meat, butter, cooking fats and many food products we were allowed. One (legal) loop-hole was to have a meal at a restaurant, where it was not required to give up “food coupons”. Living for a while in Scotland, in 1941 a treat was to go to a popular restaurant in the city of Edinburgh. It was called Mackies – and I enjoyed meals there. Alas, I only remember the fried potatoes (“Chips”), which had been cut in “crinkle” shapes, like this.
I suppose they are tastier because they are able to absorb more fat or oil and have a greater surface area to crispen! You can buy both “straight” and “crinkle-cut” chips from your frozen foods shop, so you can decide which ones you like better. Or you can buy a simple crinkle shaped metal cutter and do them yourself (recommended)
Fast-forward to the middle years of WWII, with America now fighting alongside the Brits and the Russians against the Germans and Japanese. In 1943, my mother, sister and I were living in the south-west of England, where we befriended a number of homesick American soldiers, camped not far from us, prior to “going over” in the Allied Invasion of German-occupied France on D-day (6th June 1944).
They were generous with little presents each time they visited our home, but when they realised the small quantity of food we could get on our “rations”, each time they came they brought food items. And so, I was introduced to SPAM, the famous canned meat. This was an amalgam of pork and ham meat and fat, pressed into a block which could be sliced and eaten cold, or fried, like bacon. Powerful flavour and very salty indeed, I loved it.
It is now the 1950s and I have got myself to London and working as a film publicist. After climbing a little bit up the ladder of success, I was granted an expense account with which to entertain journalists and business contacts. It was then at a popular medium-priced restaurant favoured by writers and film people, called Rules, I first encountered (for the first and virtually only) time genuine Dublin Bay Prawns. These were plump and succulent with a splendid lobstery flavour of the sea, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and deep fried. I think the prawn/shrimp beds must have been fished out because after a few years the plump beauties disappeared, never to return.
The dish changed names, too, to Scampi, a name under which more gastronomic atrocities are committed than I can count. Rules is still in the same place, off the Strand, in a little street called Maiden Lane. It is now rather posh and expensive – with not a Dublin Bay prawn to be seen on its menu.
The first dish the Levantine lady who became my first wife cooked for me was stuffed cabbage. These prosaic words baldly describe one of the great dishes of the world. One or more large, pale green, smooth leaved cabbages are required, plus a very large stewing pan.
You will also require some lean lamb meat, about a kilo, quite finely chopped, plenty of garlic cloves, a cup or so of rice and a couple of cans of tomatoes, Italian for preference, a lemon sliced, cinnamon and cumin for flavouring. Proceed as follows: 1. Put the rice in a sieve and rinse it well with cold water. Wash the cabbage well. 2. Cut the choggy base and tough outer leaves from the cabbage. 3. Fill the pan generously half full with water, bring to the boil. 4. Gently immerse the cabbage in the water for a couple of minutes. 5. Remove (cut away from the base) the outer leaves which should be softened. 6. Put the cabbage back and repeat the process. 7. You should end up with at least 12 good-sized limp leaves, at which point you can discard the water.
8. Now, from each cabbage leaf, with the sharp knife cut away a finger length of the tough stem, in a slim V-shape. 9. Cut each leaf into two, vertically. 10. In a bowl put the finely chopped lamb and rice; sprinkle over the cinnamon and cum and salt and pepper and mix well.
11. Take one piece (you should have about 24) of cabbage, lay it flat and near its base put a table spoon of the meat mix near its base.
12. Roll up the leaf, turning both edges in as you can to make a neat sausage shaped parcel (see picture).
13. Now melt a pat of butter in your big pan and spread it all over the base and lay a couple of spare cabbage leaves over to cover it. 14. Carefully place your cabbage rolls in the bottom, quite closely packed. 15. When the first layer is complete, scatter a few lemon slices over and then put another lot layered across, and so on until all your cabbage rolls are in. 16. Scatter any number of garlic cloves over the top (as many as your taste suggests) 17. Pour tomatoes and juice over top. You need liquid to cover, so if the tomato juice doesn’t do this, add some water. 18. Put a heavy plate inverted on top, fitting as closely to the edges of the pan as possible. 19. Put on a low gas and heat till bubbling, then let simmer for around 45 – 50 minutes. 20. Lift plate, take one roll out and cut end off. If rice is cooked, all is done. 21. Presto! Serve, adding some tomato and juice from your pan to finish each plate!
Like so many dishes, this one is cooked slightly differently by almost every cook. Some people like quite fat cabbage rolls, others very slim ones. My own would be slightly thinner than those pictured. But however you do it, you can hardly fail, even if you overcook a little bit. The combined flavour of the lamb, cabbage, tomato and garlic is sublime. So good, I seldom accompany it with anything other than a piece of bread.