John has been away in the hospital now for almost four months; a quarter of a year. The winter has faded away into clear bright spring, and it is impossible to deny how long he’s been gone. Things have changed, without him. I am used to it now, or mostly. Some nights it still sweeps over me; some mornings it still feels a horrible shock to wake alone, again. The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide…
I put Joni Mitchell on the stereo, and make a cup of tea in the mug, and bring my laptop back to bed to write. These are the things I don’t do when he is here. There are lots of things like this, things I wouldn’t do with John here. At first I felt obscurely guilty about this, as if I was somehow betraying him by finding a silver lining in his absence: the freedom to stay up to unsociable hours, or eat stuffed pasta for dinner a dozen nights in a row, or use all the hot water.
And there are things I don’t do any more without him: cook meat, or use the teapot, or go to the park by the canal where I wrote my first book.
Still I know what’s happening there in the same way I know in my bones what’s happening in the countryside where I grew up: Laurie Lee said he was “like a radio receiver set up in a cellar, continually receiving messages from the other side of the lines”. I am that radio receiver. I know what’s in bloom, what’s in bud, what the green patterns will be like in the fields and on the water. It’s comforting to carry this knowledge of the world with me, like a steadiness: things bud and bloom and fall and decay and rise again after the winter.
When I was a little girl we sang a hymn at school at Easter-time, and I have always loved it, because it barely seems religious at all, or rather it is religious in the old way: the magic of things coming new up through the dark earth. I am not really religious, although this last quarter-year has tested me, I think: I tried very hard to go to church, and couldn’t find anything in it. But I can find something in this: now the green blade riseth from the buried grain/ wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain…
And that is why I think I wanted these carrots when I saw them: because expensive ones with pungent green tops. The kind that you can tell are long, thin roots for the green plant; the kind with the brightest orange cores.
Imagine that colour underground, for nobody but the moles and the earthworms and the bones- I love that. I love that I still a little bit believe- because the colour is so vivid, because it makes so much sense to my soul- that if I ate enough I could see in the dark. I love that you can walk past a row of carrots and not know at all about that wild pop of vivid orange under the earth. And I love that good carrots come with earth still in the leaves, the same way that all leeks come with earth folded under their wrappings, and I love that to get the tops you have to have the earth, too, to remind you where the food came from.
Which is one reason why I wanted to use all the carrot- the tops, the peel too- when I was cooking this just for me one night last week.
And the other reason is that a thing I do in my new life is take the bins out: it is my worst job, and I hate it, and I would like to do it as little as possible. So I sift through the rubbish, and try to make something good, which is all I think I can possibly hope to do with anything.
I bought blood oranges, too, a net of them, which are I think in season: I used most of them for juice, but some I roasted and used here, and they were wonderful: so sharp and sweet and crisp and the perfect foil for the carrots.
This is a lovely meal: a little bit fiddly, a little bit time consuming, but really satisfying to make and eat, and it’s beautiful, too. It’s not like the meals I used to make, or the way I used to cook, but I think it’s pretty good all the same. I am trying to feel less guilty about finding things to love in my new life, because there are so many things to love: the sky is blue, and the colours of the carrots are bright and vivid, and the toast is crisp, and there’s Joni on the stereo, and it’s hard not to believe in some goodness in the world.
That hymn I love so much: the verse ends
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
And I love that, too. I love to remember that mostly, whatever happens, there will be love, after.
Blood Oranges, Carrots, Toast
Roasted carrots with blood oranges
400g carrots (with tops)
Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic
Tbsp cumin seeds
Tsp cracked black pepper
2 med. blood oranges
Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees.
Wash the carrots very thoroughly; this is easiest to do right now. Wash the blood oranges while you’re here, and slice them into quarters.
Peel, top and quarter the carrots lengthwise, reserving the peel and the tops for later. You want them thin, so if your carrots are thicker than mine, you might need to slice the quarters down, too.
Put the carrots and six quarters of orange into your most useful roasting dish. Push the unpeeled garlic cloves into any spaces.
Squeeze the remaining blood oranges into a glass; whisk in the honey and the oil, and drizzle it liberally over the carrots. Scatter over the cumin and the pepper.
(Try to resist adding salt here if you’re going to make the pesto and the peels, because they add enough on their own- but if you’re just roasting carrots, use smoked flaky sea salt and add it now, because it is delicious.)
Roast for 25-35 minutes, keeping a North eye on them in case they need a shake; they should be tender and a little caramelised on top.
While they are roasting, make the pesto and the peels.
The tops from one 400g bunch of carrots
3 stems thyme
3 stems Thai basil (ordinary basil, or any aromatic fresh herb works fine)
2 fat cloves garlic
8 walnut halves
The juice of 1/2 blood orange
2 tbsp olive oil- have more to hand if you’re using a Nutribullet
Lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
Wash the carrot tops thoroughly, and pick out any black bits: they make it taste bitter. Pack them into the blender, and add the fresh herbs. Grate the Parmesan and the garlic directly into the blender, and throw in the walnuts. Squeeze in the orange juice, add the olive oil, and blitz. Taste: you will need salt and pepper, and you might need a dash of lemon juice if your oranges are particularly sweet.
This will make quite a lot more than you need for four pieces of toast, of course, but you can use it in place of ordinary pesto for a few days after. (I had it with pasta, and as part of a salad dressing, and just on toast.)
(NB: if using a Nutribullet, as I was, you’ll need a bit more oil than you actually want to make sure the mechanism doesn’t get jammed: you can see in the picture that there’s a little bit too much oil there, which I just siphoned off before I spread my toast.)
Crispy carrot-peels with thyme and smoked sea-salt
The peelings from one 400g bunch of carrots
Oil to fill a small saucepan to a depth of about 1 cm
A handful of fresh thyme
Two tsp smoked flaky sea-salt
1 tsp soft brown sugar
I found these by accident, by adding too much oil and heating it too high over a low flame. I have never deep fried anything, but this was very gentle and very easy and I kept a tea-towel over my arm the whole time so that if necessary I could stifle a fire: I am absolutely terrified of frying things but this was fine, honestly.
And they were good! Crispy and sweet and texturally gorgeous, and tasting very earthy and vivid and unusual. And really pretty.
Heat the oil gently until a carrot peeling, dropped in it, sizzles vigorously. Add half of the thyme leaves, and the brown sugar; stir very carefully. Add the carrot peelings, and spread out in the oil so that the oil can fry every part of the peel. Watch them so they don’t burn, and as soon as they crisp scoop them out with a slotted spoon onto some folded kitchen paper, to absorb any leftover oil.
You will probably have to do them in three or four batches. Once cool, tip into a bowl, and garnish with the rest of the thyme leaves, and the salt. Shake.
You might want to get your fingers in, to crush a few to salty-sweet earthy powder.
Toast four pieces of the very best sourdough you can find (I used Poilane, and it was wonderful).
Take the carrots from the oven, and pick out the garlic, which should be soft and sweet and rich. Peel them with your fingers straight onto the toast: one clove per slice. You should be able to spread the garlic properly after half an hour in the oven.
Spread the garlic toast with pesto; pile the carrots extravagantly. Top with a segment of roasted, caramelised blood orange. Scatter with the crispy peels, and a little black pepper.
You could serve with a crisp green salad, to make this a proper meal. It was just me, so I didn’t, but if I had I would have had rocket and little gems, and dressed them like this: olive oil, Dijon mustard, blood orange juice, balsamic vinegar, and some half walnuts and a little creamy goat’s cheese just tossed through for softness.