Things have got out of hand so I am rearranging the kitchen. This requires engineer-like precision in space management but mostly it highlights the amount of stuff I have. Which then begets the question, how much is too much? Where kitchens are concerned, better to have than have not seems to be my motto. In any case, I am good at this, if I am allowed to say so myself, because I have experience.
I have moved house more times than most, so I am no stranger to organizing a kitchen. But the process is not completely streamlined yet. What happens during the unpack is, I wonder why more was not taken to the charity shop before the move. The next thing that happens, usually after a few months in a new place, I start looking for something and then annoyingly remember I gave it away. It is a difficult balance to achieve, knowing what to shift and what to keep. Thankfully, I am inconsistent so some items have survived the multiple upheavals and my seemingly random sifting mechanism.
Current logistics problem aside, I have decided it is good to hang on to things. As we cohabit over the years, these things and I, we settle in together. They become necessary, familiar objects, each one a comforting reminder of lives and homes past: an antique jug from les puces at Porte de Vanves, the mantle clock from Bermondsey market, a patchwork quilt from my childhood. I think about who I was with when I bought it, or which shelf it sat on in another house, or what bed it covered years ago. This is also why unpacking, and rearranging, take me so long.
In the kitchen, I came across one such steadfast companion: a small brown oval baking dish. It is an ordinary ceramic dish. Speckles of baked-on black bits dot the the dark edges and the beige interior has a patina of crackles from years of greasing, roasting, scrubbing.
The shop where I bought it was somewhere in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. It was one of those very old fashioned places with a stern shopkeeper and just enough on display to entice you in but not quite enough so you can help yourself without asking for assistance. They are seductive, these shops; alluring yet intimidating, and what they lack in customer care skills and decent lighting they make up for in fabulous stuff, all kept behind the counter of course. Household items are usually what they sell and, for a certain kind of person, if utensils and gadgets are involved, the promise of finding an object of desire often outweighs the fear of going in and asking for it.
I was in my early twenties at the time, with genuinely very little in the way of kitchen equipment. The shop was not far from where I lived, so I passed it often. One day, the gap in cooking utensils became too much to bear so there was an excuse, a need even, to venture in. Naturally, what I wanted could not be seen: a small inexpensive vessel, something to cook a gratin in. There was no choice but to ask.
Fitting my description rather perfectly, a small brown oval baking dish was brought forth, on its own. No choosing. No refusing either, was how it felt. The dish was solemnly wrapped in tissue paper and I carried it home. It was not love at first sight, as it was forced upon me rather then selected, but it was useful and has remained so.
In this current kitchen, the dish does not sit nicely inside any of the other small baking dishes, so it lives with the big ones, making a mockery of attempts to neatly arrange the baking dish section of the cupboard. But I don’t mind, really. It is my small brown baking dish, from the housewares shop in Paris. And it is still here.
(Baked Chicory with Ham and Gruyère)
This is a traditional French recipe, very homey and old fashioned, and perfect for a simple
winter supper. Choose endives that are similar in size to ensure even cooking. I like to roast
them on their own first, to make sure they cook thoroughly but also to wilt and caramelize
the tips the leaves, which improves the taste immensely. Serve with crusty bread and a
rustic wine. You will need a baking dish.
6 large chicory/Belgian endive, about 90 g each
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
12 slices ordinary ham
100 g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
Butter, for greasing the baking dish
For the béchamel
50 g unsalted butter
40 g plain flour
600 ml hot milk
1/2 tsp fine salt
Pinch of grated nutmeg
50 g Gruyère cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Generously butter a 33 x 21 cm baking dish.
Halve the chicory lengthways. Drizzle over the oil then rub all over with your hands to coat evenly. Arrange in a single layer on the baking tray. Sprinkle lightly with salt and about 4 tbsp water. Roast until just tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Leave the oven on.
Meanwhile, prepare the béchamel. Melt the butter in a havey-based saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minutes. Switch to a whisk and pour in the hot milk gradually, whisking constantly until it’s all added. Keep whisking, gently, until the sauce begins to thicken, 3-5 minutes. Stir in the salt, nutmeg and 50 g of the cheese.
When the chicory are cool enough to handle, wrap each half in a slice of ham and arrange, side-by-side, in the prepared dish. Pour over the bechamel, spreading to coat evenly. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over all and bake until browned and bubbling, 20-30 minutes. Serve hot.